There was so much to be excited about in the theatre line-up of this year’s ever-eclectic Latitude Festival. The schedule I’d typed up on my phone (too nervous to trust the app) meant that toilet and cider breaks might not always be possible, but from gig theatre, works-in-progress, queer cabaret and live art I knew I was sure to be CULTURED OFF MY TITS.
I was lucky enough to be there myself presenting SBC Theatre’s Manifesto Move!, a collaboration with Leeds Beckett Performance, Music and Dance students, part of an effort to ensure that young people get a seat at the proverbial theatre table. And yes, while it can still be said the festival as a whole is still well middle class, here is the performance programme to prove, unequivocally, that the arts can and should make room for everyone.
The theme of Latitude this year was Utopia, meaning that the sense of danger weaving through previous years’ line-ups was replaced by a focus on healing and rebuilding and as Britain hurtles towards the unknown (yay!). It was inspiring to feel the hope laced throughout every single piece of work: what follows is a rundown of the shows that shone out for me over the weekend.
First up, in Anna Jordan’s Pop Music, co-produced by Paines Plough and Birmingham Rep, I found an upbeat, witty one-two-step down memory lane. The sounds of nineties girl bands and Britpop wrapped us in a big old bear hug of nostalgia, and the reassurance that it IS ok to be just as confused about, well, everything, in your thirties as it is in your twenties. The full-freaking-integration of BSL in this show played a starring role. Interpreter Ciaran Alexander Stewart is just as much a part of the party, and as a trio the cast really do give Destiny’s Child a run for their money. This isn’t groundbreaking theatre but there’s a definite knowingness to the frivolity. Life’s hard enough right now, and sometimes audiences just wanna have fun.
Madi Maxwell-Libby takes on neoliberalism in Massive Sense of Urgency. She’s a woman with a plan: a step-by-step programme in how to win at capitalism. There’s a particularly effective trick with water balloons and a ladder which explains what on earth neoliberalism actually is, performed with a knowing wink throughout that suggests perhaps trickle down economics is just that: a trick. Maxwell-Libby is at her best when blasting us with her whip-smart poetry; I wanted more of that – but maybe that’s because society has conditioned me to be greedy? Although neoliberalism is presented as problematic, the fun-and-games nature of the work elsewhere doesn’t always allow it to really tackle the dangers of it with any urgency. Regardless, you’ll laugh and learn at this show. Madi, feel free to quote me in your Arts Council Evaluation!
Bryony Kimmings was testing material for her new show (and first solo in ten years) in I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, navigating motherhood and its impact on her mind, body, family and life. There’s gut-wrenching honesty nesting between witty lyrics, insightful asides, sparkly dresses and heartbreaking text. The meta-theatricality of the work-in-progress itself was utilised as an artful metaphor for motherhood and recovery after trauma, and I’m intrigued to see how much of the figuring-things-out element will make its way into the finished piece at Battersea Arts Centre this Autumn. The opportunity to see such a well-known artist mid-operation and still on the main ‘Theatre Arena’ stage is wholly unique to Latitude and heartening to see the process valued as much as the final product. And whichever direction the making process takes her in the summer, Bryony Kimmings is most certainly back, bitches.
The Push Things Forward Collective, a collaboration between the equally exciting nabokov, Middle Child and Not Too Tame, were camped out in the Faraway Forest throughout the festival, gathering audience stories as contributions to live work made right there in the moment. Part installation, part open mic, part community-led theatre they welcomed anyone with a story to tell, to get involved, in any way they fancied. A firm reminder that things are just better when we work together, the stripped back ‘theatre for the people’ deserved a more central location within the forest and I hope to see them taking up more space (figuratively and literally) in the future.
Ad Infinitum were previewing No Kids, a musical cabaret in which the co-artistic directors Nir Paldi and George Mann mine their own real-life relationship to decide whether or not to bring a child into the world. This rollercoaster of a show (about making the show) explores the hopes and fears of any parent whilst beautifully navigating the concerns of raising a child with two dads in a society where attitudes are still playing catch up to laws. It’s a seriously skillful performance with a blistering sense of urgency, and although it’s a more low key affair than Ad Infinitum’s previous work, this just heightens the sense that it’s their most personal. As their minds, and Pride-themed wardrobe, are hurled about the stage, I found myself hoping that these two say yes to kids: the world needs many more of their creations.
Middle Child took us through Eve Nicol’s thoroughly relatable One Life Stand, with music from James Frewer and Honeyblood. Exploring human connection in a world of smartphones and instant gratification, there’s a genuine warmth and calm brought to the incessant swiping and notifications of our tech-driven lives. This is ‘find your tribe’ gig-theatre. It may not get you up dancing, but it’s uplifting, meditative nature truly lands home the need for genuine human connection. I defy you not to find at least a small part of yourself reflected back from the stage.
And finally it’s time to talk about the highlight of the festival, and probably my year so far, HighRise Theatre’s Lil Miss Lady. A show packed with so much passion, smarts, rage and joy – not to mention the greatest DJ set on any festival lineup (thank you DJ Kaylee Kay; we are not worthy). Lil Miss Lady, played by the tour de force that is Lady Lykez, explores a female MC navigating all the fun of the patriarchy and sexist attitudes in the world of UK bass music. She is consistently looked over in favour of her male counterparts; they quite literally pass the mic over her head, despite the obvious fact that she runs rings round not only her peers but the current kings of the scene. The energy of this show is infectious and inclusive, welcoming and immersing every single audience member into their world. There is a detailed narrative running through this rave-play. The text punches straight to the point and the party atmosphere never detracts from its crucial message: a global critique of any male dominated industry, workplace or social scene still pitting its women against one another and the power of women refusing to play by those rules. The piece effortlessly navigates systemic oppression, judicial discrimination, the unfair and unreasonable expectations of motherhood, the joys of female friendship, the politics of black women’s hair and the importance of self belief (breathe!)… whilst still being SO. MUCH. FUN! I can not recommend this show enough, and this was a work-in-progress?! Pay close attention to HighRise, they are the future that theatre deserves.
The star of this year’s festival was undoubtedly its own commitment to works still in the making. The opportunity to test new material on this scale is virtually unheard of, and a real testament to the respect Latitude has for theatre-makers and the process of creating. Artists from every background, at any level, were afforded the opportunity to be bold and experiment. The traditional (read tired) rules of behaviour in a theatre don’t apply in the festival setting, with audiences able to wander in and out as they please. And although, narratively-speaking, stuff might get missed, the buzz and passion emanating from the Speakeasy and Cabaret tents, Theatre Arena and Faraway Forest has the potential to pull in curious passersby that a theatre building can often only dream of. Of course, convincing fans of The Killers that they should check out the intimate live art in a forest might not be the easiest task (I mean there’s obvious cross-over in my mind but, whatever!) but both theatre lovers, and those that might never have been before, can tangibly shape and impact the work that they see… because theatre is nothing without its audience.
Latitude was on from 12-15th July 2018, at Henham Park. More info on the line-up here.