Feature in Issue 21-4 | Winter 2009

Mint Fest – Kendal, August 2009

Mint Fest (the largest of the Lakes Alive programme of Cumbrian festivals) follows in the grand tradition of many French street arts festivals where a small, unlikely town plays host to a well-funded festival with an international perspective, the local population take to it like ducks to water, and pretty soon it’s attracting visitors from far and wide. A daytime programme of street shows is complemented with an evening of stand-alone shows and installations.

First up were Plungeboom with their new Lakes Alive commission, in which two ‘French’ chefs standing in their own kitchen unit recruit a handful of young chefs to find ingredients for a meal for a troll. Plungeboom are a young Manchester group whose rise to street arts fame has been very quick. This is down to the unique quality of their work and their ability to put their ideas across in a fresh and engaging manner. There’s a lot of chat, which usually puts me off, but they avoid the weary at-one-remove cynicism that can hamper the street artist and instead have the audience eating out of their hands. They were up against an extremely loud and lazily presented sideshow, but carried on regardless.

Fairly Famous Family presented Anyone for Tennis on the road – a measure of a good street festival, in my opinion, is when roads are closed off and you can stand where you damn well want to stand. This featured a small lawn tennis set-up with a net and a high seat for the umpire to sit and control the goings-on. Very Middle England in look and feel. A member of the audience is selected to be the Minor Royal who will present the shield; two are chosen to be ball-boy and ball-girl, whilst another is chosen to be John McEnroe. The second company member becomes Pat Cash in all his mullet-haired, strutting glory. The show takes us through a Wimbledon final complete with daft slow-motion replay and although it’s familiar stuff the charm of the commentary (which hides a few salty innuendoes along the way) effortlessly carries us along with it. The audience is tight in on the show, and there’s nowhere to hide so it relies on a lot of varied skills to carry it off – a perfect piece of street entertainment.

Sadly the classic bank holiday weather affected the early evening programme so we made our way to the big tented show, Circenses by Circus Ronaldo. I’ve said before on these pages that there isn’t a better group around in terms of top quality, comic, live entertainment and the same still holds true. This time the audience are split in half – one half goes backstage to see the preparations for the show, whilst the other half sees the show, and at half-time they switch over. We went backstage to start with, entering the Big Top via laundry hanging out to dry. This section is widescreen, impressionistic, very textured and there’s a lot of little sub-plots to keep in your head. The mood is by turns fractious, panicky, chaotic, sulky and furious as props don’t work, stage animals get accidentally shot, and blunders conspire to change the running order or wipe certain acts off the bill completely. People return from in front of the curtain with odd props, we hear the other half of the audience laughing and find ourselves wondering what’s going on out there; likewise those on the other side hear us laughing and wonder what’s happening on our side. All hung together by lovely music from the houseband overlooking both stages. There are moments when all hell is breaking loose as well as moments where you can just sit back and reflect.

Half-time and we swap over to see the actual show. This is a showcase of some exquisite circus skills presented in a very unshowy fashion but after about 15 minutes it becomes apparent that we aren’t just seeing what the audience in the first half saw, and by the end both audiences can see each other over the debris of a show that has literally brought the house down. We are left with a very sober image of the future of circus as real father and real son sit in the ruins next to a skeleton version of grandfather on a merry-go-round horse, trading verses on concertinas.

Circus Ronaldo for me leave all other circuses who use narrative trailing in their wake – indeed the skills are so subsumed into the story that it’s easy to take them for granted. But it is the skill at telling a story which remains in your head as much as the eternal question of how Danny Ronaldo swaps the bike frame around without you noticing so he sits on the pedal wheel instead of the saddle. He’s done it in two shows now and I still haven’t twigged.

On such a wet day a fire installation is the perfect end, and French company Carabosse provide a magical and beautifully realised version in a nearby park. They use different qualities of fire to give a real sensation of space and size and do it so effectively that the space they use appears to be bigger than it actually is. I saw their first show 10 years ago where they incorporated performance in a poor and rather po-faced manner to frustrating effect. Good to see that they’ve ditched that element and paradoxically strengthened the theatrical possibilities through other means.
Edward Taylor

Once Upon a Summer’s Eve – Keswick, August 2009

Once Upon A Summer’s Eve sees quality (and mostly British) street theatre acts gathered for a lakeside feast of bucolic art – a Lakes Alive event in a landscape of such intrinsic beauty that the glorious colours of the setting sun threatened to upstage the many acts.

The event kicked off with Markmark performing their evergreen street theatre show, Idiots. Mark Tillotson and Simon Kerrigan are a perfectly complimentary double act who wow their audience with their slick timing and easy rapport. I particularly like their measured restraint, while appearing to be making it up as they go along, they are actually very much in control – the adlibbing is effective, and nothing is overdone.

Also seen was the world premiere of The Cabaret of Dr. Caligari, in which James Macpherson (of Artizani) has created a bold and ambitious new street theatre show. With a cast of seven comedians, the show features a collection of exotic characters performing cabaret routines in a bizarre style that would have delighted the late Angela Carter. James, as the malevolent MC, bravely holds it all together, while his young cast cavort with enthusiasm.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to see Bash Street Theatre’s show The Station, which impressively engaged the audience for an hour, with performances of intricate precision and beguiling charm – and demonstrating that a complex and sustained narrative is possible outdoors, even in these damp and windswept latitudes. Their beautiful set looked perfect with the lake behind.

Also on offer: Whalley Range All Stars presented their imaginative Compost Heap, a visually poetic piece with the confidence to play at its own pace. Performances, characterisation and set fitted in perfectly to the rural setting. Red Herring constructed a Punch & Judy set-up in the centre of the park where it looked striking against a picturesque background. They then went walkabout in their Punch and Judy characters. Utopium (from France) presented Snow White with Gallic whimsy in an ironically knowing style. And their set also suited the location, resembling a fairytale castle in a forest. Strangely, this French show was the most verbal, and although losing something in translation, it did have an interesting quality.

The event ended with Tubas on the Lake by Tres, which was – yes – tubas playing harmonies in boats on the lake, sailing across the water, an intentionally low-key finale – although they missed a trick by not illuminating the boats, as lanterns would have looked beautiful reflected in the waters of Lake Derwentwater.
Michael Lister

Dance Daze at Penrith July 2009

Penrith is a picturesque small town in the Lake District that, as far as I could tell, is normally a little starved of arts activity. So it is good to honour in these pages the arrival of Dance Daze, a new mini-festival dedicated to dance-theatre works sited outdoors, which was launched by Cultural Olympiad guru Bill Morris who stressed the value of having a programme of ‘world class’ work presented in Penrith. And whilst it was certainly true that the audience was a little less forthcoming than so-called ‘educated street arts audiences’ in places with established festivals, the cowering in doorways was at least as much to do with the rain as the fear of art and artists – once the sun broke through, and the local population had got used to the idea of the streets and squares being full of artistic activity, there was an obvious feeling that this was something they could happily get used to. Companies presenting work at the first Dance Daze included Srishti, Stopgap, Balletboyz II, and the company I was there working with, Ragroof Theatre.

And then there was Punchdrunk, with The House That Jack Built. It’s a piece that seems to have caused some consternation amongst people who associate Punchdrunk with large-scale immersive theatre work, forgetting that the co-director of the company (Maxine Doyle) is a Laban trained dancer/choreography, and that dance-theatre is at the heart of the company’s work. There have also been grumblings about the light and easy mood of this work, as Punchdrunk are associated with the dark and the dangerous, but surely the exploration of other moods is their prerogative as a company? Personally, I find it to be an engaging and enjoyable piece. The soft and easy movement work (with typical Doyle choreography, focusing on the relationship between performers rather than the creation of abstract pictures), the gentle clowning, and the whimsical humour of the set-up (the construction/deconstruction of various edifices from a wall of hay bales) all combining to create a harmonious and happy piece of outdoor dance-theatre. Not what some people might expect from Punchdrunk, perhaps, but that’s alright Jack!
Dorothy Max Prior

Lakes Alive is a four-year programme of world-class arts events. It is a Kendal Arts International initiative produced by Julie Tait with Jeremy Shine and MIA.