Winchester Hat Fair

Feature in Issue 14-3 | Autumn 2002

The Hat Fair is ‘Britain’s Longest Running Festival of Street Theatre’, and since the mid 1970s it has developed into a four-day event, which takes over the whole of the centre of Winchester, as well as surrounding venues, including the Cathedral Green. This year over 40 companies from all over the world were performing. On the Saturday afternoon there is so much going on it’s almost impossible to move in the High Street.

And yet it still manages to retain a feeling of smallness and cosiness. This is partly because of the real sense of community involvement at its heart, partly because of the loyalty of many performers (notably Haggis & Charlie, Palfi the Laughologist, Circus Fudge) who return time and again, partly because of the size of Winchester, and partly because founder Jonathan Kay is still very much in evidence.

This year there was a further expansion. The Theatre Royal hosted two nights of cabaret, the Teazer – An Evening of Decaying Decadence and Lennie and Morris’s Voodoo Vaudeville. Furthermore, the Bioscope Show was in a new venue behind the Cathedral; the Broadway had been completely opened up for the Saturday Night Street Continental; and Wolvesey Castle presented ‘A Feast of Fire’, which, with its stunning and imaginative use of space, colour and music was, for me, the highlight of the four days.

Less successful was Compagnie Elixir from France, who presented La Machine as the culmination of the Street Continental on Saturday Night. A cross between Mad Max and Archaos with a sort of Heath Robinson contraption, emitting flames, smoke and stench it slowly made its way down the High Street manned by a post-apocalyptic crew, before stopping in the Broadway. The ensuing performance seemed to be more of the same, promising much but delivering little.

In an overview of this length it’s impossible to review each act but amidst the jugglers, stiltwalkers and clowns were some real gems. I particularly liked The Strangelings at the Picnic on the Sunday. Two polar explorers outside their tent, passing the time waiting (‘I wonder where Oates has got to. He said he may be some time, Sir.’) were funny, touching, absurd and well characterised. Their presentation subverted the standard approaches of street theatre, in that they avoided playing or appealing to their audience.

Then there were the Australian Aborigine dances of Red Centre Dreaming; although I had my doubts about their authenticity, nevertheless they were strong and unusual, the dancers embodying the essence of the animals they portrayed, especially the kangaroo. And finally Talia Theatre’s The Doodlebug Bomb was an object lesson in how to build a show which fits perfectly into an outdoor venue whilst engaging its audience in time-honoured fashion. The inflatable bomb was pretty good too.

Under Director Cat Lorrigio and her team the Hat Fair accomplishes the difficult feat of developing and broadening its range of work, whilst remaining true to its roots as an event where all performers are welcome. It will be interesting to see how it consolidates this year’s achievement and in what ways it will continue to grow.

This article in the magazine

Issue 14-3
p. 28