The Junction, where Fusion Festival is held, is like a family home with terrible neighbours. It’s a venue that has consistently provided a cultural life for Cambridge’s young people, from its five-pound gig nights, to scratch nights, to this very festival, but it’s hemmed in by a faceless retail park. U2 is being piped out of the speakers at Bella Italia, on its ninth (?) rebrand. You can go to Five Guys instead if you like. Or Nando’s. And you’re a five-minute walk from the CB1 development, a project so mercenary and careless that The Guardian has dubbed it a “future slum”.
“A year of not acting is just terrifying to me,” says someone outside a Frankie and Bennie’s. The audience and performers here are as sincere as their surroundings are cynical and slick.
The programme is split into pieces that are totally earnest, and ones that aren’t. Both camps impress. There’s Sam Williams’ The Limbic System explaining Chaos Theory via a wistful glance at a snow-globe. Or there’s Superbolt Theatre’s The Jurassic Parks explaining Chaos Theory by shaking big cups of water in your face.
For a taste of perfectly controlled chaos, you can watch The Pretend Men’s Police Cops in Space, which manages to combine the most sophisticated use of props (the use of pois to make a light-up motorbike makes the audience gasp), with a burlesque-y spirit that means one performer spends the entire show in a pair of tracksuit bottoms ripped at the crotch. The paradox is utterly charming.
The 5 Minute Call, the festival’s testing ground for new performers, expressed this same tension. Spoken word artists riffed on notions of gender, of creativity, of their feelings of fear at terror attacks, of environmental crisis. Some of the works feel cluttered. This might just be because we live in cluttered times. But it’s the sheer silliness and joy of two of the entries that really grabs.
William Blok, the ultimate winner, floors the audience with four jokes. It’s the only time I haven’t been annoyed by a free hugs sign. This spirit of showmanship moves through Bar Groisman’s joyful dance piece, which ends with a wink.
There are bits of the programme that don’t work. A film of a dance based on the Chilean mining disaster leads me to ask hard-hitting questions, like, why am I watching a film of this dance when all the performers are here? And why is the Walden filter being used on all the footage?
Almost every show here is looking back, or looking in. There’s a heavy focus on meta-theatricality, on pastiche and homage. It feels like these performers are looking into the past for clues for how to negotiate a shifting and uneasy present.
There’s an emphasis on old media – novels, letter-writing, video-tapes, ’80s sci-fi – that expresses a deepening nostalgia for a time that most of the audience, and the performers, weren’t even a part of. They are recreating the time before the digital flood. (But they are also dancing to the DJ set that goes on at half-eight. It’s not po-faced or reverential).
It’s clear that the view outside the Junction isn’t good enough. And it’s even clearer that this festival is looking way beyond it. Fusion is making good on its promises: it’s a testament to the festival that the winner of last year’s 5 Minute Call (Sam Williams), presented a tightly written and moving one-man show for this year. Fusion isn’t just spotting talent – it’s sustaining it.
Fusion Theatre Festival was at Cambridge Junction on June 24th. For more info, click here.