For its tenth year, Latitude Festival is marching under the banner “For Richer, For Poorer, For Better, For Worse”: a theme suggesting all the married discomfort and commitment of the decade-long association between the festival and its distinctively left-leaning, vaguely artsy, child-toting demographic. There were enough jokes about halloumi, recycling, and kids called Rufus scattered across the comedy and cabaret stages to make the incongruity audible, with self-deprecating laughs accompanying the spectacle of the middle class eating itself with a self-loathing only slightly greater than that needed to choke down a £7 compost bin scrapings masquerading as a veggie option. But in a world where newspapers pap David Cameron “chillaxing”at Cornbury, the richest Glastonbury attendees are helicoptered into pop-up hotel rooms on site, and John Lewis literally has its own music festival (on Blackheath, of course), Latitude could afford to give itself a bit of a break. It might be one of the pricier weekends away, but its obsession with recyclable cups and reused tents mean it’s destroying the planet slightly less avidly than its shinier rivals. And there’s the same social conscience and self-awareness shining through its programme of performance too: it’s a fearless and genuinely exciting survey of the most forward-thinking live art and theatre.
You wouldn’t know there was a theme on the main stages, which have been scattered with a nostalgic lucky dip of Noel Gallagher, Portishead, alt-J – with a surprise gig from Ed Sheeran catapulted in like a dead squirrel to keep the restive teenagers quiet. But tucked away in the woods, the Faraway Forest was full of whimsical takes on the theme, like the art installation of agonised and contorted golden heads designed to depict the “Worse”. And the bleaker presence of a prison van, too.
This housed Clean Break’s Sweatbox, a claustrophobic 30 minute experience for a handful of audience members watching three handcuffed women, each gasping in a tiny cubicle cell, like fish in an aquarium. It couldn’t be anything but political, seeing them abandoned by guards on their lunchbreak and treated like transported cattle. The Young Vic’s Taking Part’s The Brolly Project contributed even more intensity, as five people with experience of working in the sex industry read out narratives about their experiences: they trembled, stumbled or sobbed in a performance that felt therapeutic, even if watching it cross-legged in a tent set up in a pinecone-strewn fairyland felt odd: halfway to voyeurism.
There’s an atmosphere to the forest that’s sedating, almost. It’s still, but gently rocked with an uneven undertone of car noise, and conflicting bass lines from the stages that ring it. “It’s nice and cool in the woods” – say a family as they amble through, gazing benignly at the ruffed and smocked clowns playing a seemingly endless game of hide and seek as they pass. It’s a transient place where Latitude’s demographic tribes meet and cross paths: parents drag their children about in covered wagons like candy-coloured pioneerlets. Tides of teenagers are lured from the cut-price lure of their campsite and coolbox by the swilling sounds of Britpop dregs and marquee discos. Programme-clutchers quest on, in search of the next queue to join.
But the only performance that achieved the kind of gorgeous genre-melding music and theatre that festivals promise, however softly, was Sabrina Mahfouz’s With a Little Bit of Luck. Martyna Baker was a one-woman jukebox, swaying and crooning out a decade of UK garage hits with gravelly lyricism, like she’d crunched Old Skool compilations for breakfast. The audience streamed in and welcomed each new song with a cheer or reflexively jerking shoulders, or raised hands. By the time Seroca Davis made her appearance, charismatic as a student-turned-dealer in mid-noughties North London, they were eating out of her pill-filled hands. Mahfouz’s pacy tall story of a script was injected with enough call outs to keep her ecstatic audience focused, even if it fell short of suggesting the dangers, as well as the joys, of making a living selling drugs in a police-persecuted scene. Mahfouz won a Fringe First for last year’s Chef – this sequel has a peppy brightness that can sometimes feel lycra-thin, but it’s buzzy enough to earn her a second summer of love at Edinburgh.
Wrecking Ball is saturated in a scene too, albeit one that celebrates a much more cynical kind of female empowerment. Miley Cyrus crushed a thousand tweenage hearts by “growing up” and showing some skin with her 2013 single, crashlanding onto trashy pop websites ready to welcome its dose of sexualised rebellion to lighten the cellulite-and-kiddies load. But Action Hero‘s Wrecking Ball is a much quieter show than its title suggests, looking behind the brash millennial smut to the constantly shifting nuances of permission and status that underpin it.
We’re invited to sit back, have a beer. James Stenhouse is a Terry Richardson-style sleazeball, a smooth operator piecing together a script from an overused playbook of hipster platitudes. This subtly layered performance makes him manipulate both us, and Gemma Paintin’s alternately ice cold and vulnerable model – together they create and wreck imaginary worlds with an explosive force that’s strong enough to blast off her clothes, but not to blow his mind.
The piece relies on atmosphere: of the stiffness of a stage, and an audience. But the performance suffered from a crowd willing to answer back and heckle, instead of letting it fall disquietingly on an audience that’s awkward as a teenage model. They didn’t seem seduced.
Maybe they felt wrongfooted by the slow rhythms and long pauses of a piece that seemed to promise the same delayed thrills as late-night Swedish films on Channel 4: a little flutter of titillation in a sex-free desert of dust, Noel Gallagher fans and marauding babies.
Double Pussy Clit F*ck (now there’s a redundant asterisk) is bent on undressing audience expectations, too. Its 15 minutes of uncomplicated fun are hosted by Rosana Cade and Eilidh Macaskill – both dressed in princess pink, all stiff in hooped skirts and staticky platinum wigs. They’ve got moustaches too, and a toy guitar and drumkit that they hammer with impressive violence: it’s Glaswegian princess riot girl, and it’s hilarious. Then they aim a blow at the male voyeurism aimed at ‘girl-on-girl action’ with a Madonna and Child tableau milked for laughs. The message is clear: they’re not for consumption.
Another Forest Fringe performance, Joe Wild’s solo piece Sex Tapes, disconcerts by his willingness to give so much of himself to an audience of one – he’s astonishingly vulnerable as he creates an uncomfortably intimate dance that elastic-band flicks you into his life, like a passive observer implanted under his skin.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It is about getting under someone else’s skin, too: Bryony Kimmings has made a performance with boyfriend Tim Grayburn to talk about his struggle with depression, and its impact on their relationship. This Kimmings is a new one: in her previous performances she’s been immaculately made-up, sharply dressed, an acid tongue at the ready to add bite to proceedings. But this show is a love story, where she symbolises her emotional nakedness with a bare face and nude slip hugging her pregnant body.
The couple try and make the absence and void that is depression into a tangible thing with masks, silly dances, props, and poems. It’s beautiful in places, and Grayburn’s a moving, trembling presence on stage, his eyes shielded from the audience by a succession of zany headdresses. And there’s no doubt the audience was moved – it got thunderous applause. But there’s a slightly magical logic to the piece that won’t tally with everyone’s experience: medication is a panacea for Grayburn’s depression, without much mention of the therapy and internal work that accompanies recovery. It’s a natural result of the slight imbalance between advertising accounts manager Tim, who’s visibly nervous on stage, and experienced artist Bryony, whose own emotional experience and narrative is the dominant one. The real story here isn’t Tim’s recovery – it’s the process of her finding a way to understand his depression, and their shared struggle to forge a relationship that shelters them.
Made in China‘s Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me was a love story, too: but a tough, fierce one broken apart into all the angrier emotions love hides. The company’s co-founder Jess Latowicki learned to tap dance for this performance. And what’s remarkable about her newly-minted skill is how effortful it looks – whereas the 1950s Hollywood greats make tap dance look like just another way of getting around, a hybrid of walking and flying, her movement shakes the stage and sweat drips down her body. In her opening dance she pulsates like a washing machine spin cycle, vibrating her way through big fish, little fish, twerking, sex, exercise – the routine maintenance of her relationship with her offstage partner Tim.
The absence of music exposes her ragged breaths and the thumps of her feet on the stage. Her monologue that follows is similarly unsparing. Jess is completely free of self-deprecation or ambiguity or appeasement: any of the feminine emollients traditionally assumed to smooth over the rough edges of heterosexual relationships, or the awkwardness of hundreds of audience eyes looking at one lone woman. She shows us the worst of relationships, the Fellini-tinged fantasies of what dress she’s wear to Tim’s funeral, or the dead skin from her feet she hides behind the sofa. But she refuses to be vulnerable, too, staring us down in a fearless new kind of old school showmanship.
Kneehigh’s 946 rounded off the theatre programme: queues stretched down the dusty path, full of families provisioned with folding camping chairs and cereal bars to see off their hour-long wait. But although it came the closest to a family entertainment of anything on the programme, the promised puppets and music and wartime nostalgia were spikier and bleaker than you’d expect from the story of a lost cat in a Devonshire village. Kneehigh opted for the name 946 over Michael Morpugo’s original book’s title The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – it marks the number of American servicemen who were to at sea during a failed, and subsequently hushed up, military exercise in 1944. These Brecht-quoting, cartwheel-flipping serviceman are billeted to a village of farming families reluctant to leave their homes – the tensions and kindnesses of a society hosting evacuees and soldiers from cultures worlds apart are played out with compassion as they hunt for a distraught girl’s missing moggy.
What we saw was a dress rehearsal, and it was called to a stop before we found out what happened to the cat. And there was plenty more excitement that went MIA: I only heard about Forest Fringe’s funeral for the council estate second hand as, fittingly enough, an urban legend. Sh!t Theatre managed the inspiring feat of getting queues snaking round the woods for a morning show about feminism. But in a schedule as bursting as this, you’re none the poorer for a little latitude to think, wander, or be surprised: by blue-wigged grannies at a newly erected bus-stop careering round in a dance, or by an uncannily good cricket sound effect from a timid audience member at Scottee’s Party Piece. It’s these moments of cynicism-free joy that make the weekend’s entertainment such an unlikely, perfect marriage.