Nestled in the idyllic environs of Henham Park on Suffolk’s sunny coastline, Latitude has always professed to be more than just a music festival. Comedy, poetry, theatre and more have hitherto jockeyed for room alongside a music bill bristling with edgy indie bands and long-lived, long-loved legends.
Theatre has largely fared well in this melting pot, providing a welcome respite from the mosh-pits and music-nerds, and proving something of a crucible for gig-theatre and spoken-word storytelling in particular.
Something feels different this year, though. Different bad. The performing arts line-up has always been a slightly scruffy, slightly skew-whiff mix of cabaret and comedy, spoken word and circus, political satire and pre-Edinburgh try-outs – but the 2019 offerings feel carelessly cobbled together with little-to-no thought. And that lack of care runs into the staging set-ups as well.
It doesn’t help that several shows are not up to scratch themselves. The festival feels like a natural fit for the burgeoning blend of live music and storytelling that is gig-theatre, and it’s become a home from home for the genre’s leading movers and shakers: Middle Child Theatre, Nabokov and Not Too Tame.
All three are here again this year, occupying the Town Hall, a new tent erected especially for them, but all three shows are something of a let-down. Middle Child follow 2017’s excellent All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and 2018’s compelling One Night Stand with The Canary and the Crow, a patchy piece of school-based storytelling set to a grime-influenced soundtrack.
It’s a semi-autobiographical work, written and performed by Daniel Ward, exploring the story of his childhood, flitting between the predominantly poor, predominantly black community he grew up in, and the wealthy, white one he found himself in after earning a scholarship to a prestigious private college.
Ward is a warm presence, and he has a powerful political message about the segregating effect of education and the head-spinning harm that being caught between two worlds can do, but Paul Smith’s staging and Prez 96 and James Frewer’s score – an uneasy mix of cello and grime – can’t quite compliment that. You can see what they’re trying to do – synthesise posh and poor, black and white – but it never really finds the right register. Perhaps it will play better in the Paines Plough Roundabout in Edinburgh.
Nabokov and Not Too Tame’s shows are similarly disappointing – Nabokov is here with Marc Pell and Sam Bailey’s Suitman Jungle, a narrative-free drum-and-bass show about an energetic office-worker, and Not Too Tame has brought a new show, See How They Run, a series of short scenes structured around the songs of The Beatles that feels in need of fleshing out for full impact.
Neither Nabokov, nor Not Too Tame, nor Middle Child have been dealt a helpful hand by the festival itself, though. The sound quality in their new venue is tight and tinny, and it has been plonked mere metres from another tent that blares out an eclectic music mix throughout the evening, the beats infiltrating intrusively into all three shows.
There are similar problems elsewhere, at the Speakeasy, where the constant chatter from the nearby Comedy arena is almost as audible as the poets themselves, and at the main Theatre tent, where the thudding bass of the main arena consistently disrupts the drama. Sound bleed is a real problem across the site, and it needs sorting.
The rest of the shows are an odd, uncomfortable mix. Daughter, Adam Lazarus’ controversial Canadian monologue about toxic masculinity, rubs up awkwardly alongside shows from Flip Fabrique – Blizzard, an entirely forgettable snow-themed circus show – and Frantic Assembly – Sometimes Thinking, an entirely forgettable movement show about the possibilities inherent in every moment.
There are bright sparks. Gary McNair’s McGonagall’s Chronicles is a sensitive, surprisingly emotional autobiography of the world’s worst poet, William Topaz McGonagall, told entirely in intentionally contrived rhyming couplets and set soulfully to a plaintive Celtic-inflected score by Frightened Rabbit’s Simon Liddell. Wildcard Theatre’s gig-theatre show Electrolyte remains an arresting, electronica-driven exploration of grief and its effects – more established companies could learn something from their dynamism and drive.
Theatre Re’s Birth is perhaps the best of the new works at this year’s festival. Directed by Guillaume Pigé and devised by the cast, it’s similar stylistically to the company’s 2017 hit The Nature of Forgetting, swirling through the story of three women and their individual struggles with childbirth in a torrent of mime and movement that ebbs and flows, swells and surges to Alex Judd’s sweeping score.
It’s a close-run thing with Lewis Doherty’s solo-show Boar, though, in which Doherty follows up last year’s Wolf with an entertaining adventure epic made of the same winning blend of parody and mime.
Such successes can’t paper over the cracks in this year’s programming, though. Questions abound. Why does Poltergeist Theatre, one of the most exciting emerging companies around, have to perform at 11pm on Sunday night, when half the festival-goers have already said farewell? Why is the new venue for gig-theatre next to a thumping disco? Why does the theatre tent have to be so spectacularly sweat-inducing and uncomfortable, when the film and TV one is so comfy and cosy?
People pay hundreds of pounds for a weekend wristband to Latitude, and not all of them will be satisfied by Stereophonics alone. In the past the festival has done better from a performing arts perspective. It needs to do more if it’s to live up to its moniker and be more than just a music festival. More care and more curation required.