Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.

Silent Tide: The Adventures of Curious Ganz. Director Sarah Wright. Photo Steve Tanner.

Do Come with the Chablis Soon

An appreciation of Penny Francis, MBE who died in June 2023. Dorothy Max Prior and a host of other friends, former students, and colleagues from the world of puppetry and visual theatre tell us what the incorrigible Doyenne of Puppetry meant to them.

We have lost our Queen! 

Dear Penny Francis has left the building.

That’s Penny Francis, founder of the Puppet Centre Trust, and a tireless advocate and supporter of puppetry for seven decades.

Penny Francis, educator, puppetry tutor, and lecturer on the prestigious MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. 

Penny Francis, writer and editor, author of Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice, and tireless translator of the works of her friend Henryk Jurkowski; founding editor of Animations magazine, contributing editor of Animations Online and Animations in Print, and long-term contributor to Total Theatre Magazine.

When I asked people to send in their appreciations of Penny, the same words and phrases popped up again and again: Penny, we all agree, was a legend, formidable, an inspiration, dedicated, funny, enthusiastic, independent, open-minded, supportive. There again, she could be strongly opinionated – and sometimes a harsh critic. She was never afraid to speak her mind. She radiated ‘fierce intelligence, determination, and sparkling optimism’ says chair of the Puppet Centre Trust,  Mervyn Millar.

RSC: As You Like It. Puppet design by Mervyn Millar. Photo Topher McGrillis

The last time I saw Penny in person, I went to her house in Bromfelde Road in Clapham for afternoon tea. When I arrived at 4pm, clutching flowers, wine and cake, she said, ‘Oh never mind the tea, let’s open the wine!’

Like many of Penny’s friends and colleagues, I have fond memories of this house, having drunk many a cup of tea and glass of wine in the comfy sitting room that overlooked her pretty walled garden. At other times, we might be sat at her table tucking in to an Indian take-away after an Animations editorial meeting; or gathered around the piano in the front room on a winter’s evening, singing Christmas carols whilst Penny thumped the keys.

Her funeral was, of course, a very sad occasion but a splendid tribute to Penny, featuring Music Hall songs and puppetry alongside the more traditional hymns and eulogies. I was pleased that we got invited back to her house afterwards. Just to see her piano one more time was such a pleasure, and to drink a glass of her favoured white wine as we swapped memories and anecdotes – many of which seemed to revolve around Penny’s erratic driving and bizarre parking choices.

When looking through my old emails, I find that the last one I received from Penny had the subject line ‘Do Come With the Chablis Soon’. As always, it was addressed to ‘Maxie Waxie’ and signed ‘Henny Penny’. As with so many of people who knew Penny and remember her here, what had started as a work connection had turned into a rich longterm friendship that had lasted until she died.

Faulty Optic: Soiled. A favourite company of Penny’s, often featured in Animations Online / Animations In Print

I’m trying to remember how and when I first met Penny. When I was appointed editor of Total Theatre Magazine in 2000, I ‘inherited’ Penny as a regular contributor, and advisor to the editorial board. But I’d met her before then, I know I had. She seemed to always be there.

Perhaps I first met her at the Puppet Centre at Battersea Arts Centre. I lived around the corner for a few years in the mid- to late-1980s, and frequently visited this fabulous storehouse of puppets,where you might find anything  from Bagpuss to Balinese Wayang Kulit. My baby son Gabriel loved going there. He grew up to be the Animations Online designer, before going on to become a film-maker, always praised and encouraged in his work by Penny, who was a fantastic supporter of talented young people.

Then again, I had probably been introduced to Penny sometime in the 1990s at a London International Mime Festival show. This annual festival ran from 1977 to 2023, showcasing the best of the world’s visual theatre, including puppetry and animation, and Penny was a vociferous supporter, and sometime advisor. 

‘We loved Penny. What a star! What a loss,’ say LIMF directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig.  ‘She supported our festival from the outset, with friendship, and with recommendations of unusual puppetry seen on her travels. And she’d seen everything. She was clever and determined, sparkling fun and always great company. Forever youthful. We miss her.’

Figurentheater Tübingen/ Frank Soenhle: Salto.Lamento. A show much loved by Penny, which came to the London International Mime Festival

I do remember attending a Puppet Centre meeting at BAC, where the then-director of the venue, Tom Morris, asked if anybody might be interested in joining with Penny Francis to discuss the re-launching of Animations magazine. I put up my hand. Just a few days later, Penny turned up at Total Theatre HQ at Circus Space in Hoxton, with an emerging puppeteer called Mark Down in tow. Mark knows all about websites, Penny says by way of introduction, and we think that we could re-launch Animations as an online magazine, with you as editor. It was clear that saying no wasn’t an option. So we did, the three of us, with no finances or other resources. 

Mark was one of Penny’s former students. Anyone who entered her orbit tended to stay there – she seemed to collect people (as well as puppets). He’d first encountered her when he auditioned at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1995:

‘She waved her hands in the air animatedly and told us all, “I’m the puppetry tutor!”. I didn’t know what a puppetry tutor was. I found out that it was someone who suggests you use puppetry in all your projects, at every opportunity, and as much as possible. And I took her advice. After drama school, when I was very ‘out of work’, Penny put my name forward for jobs involving puppets, she invited me to puppetry conferences, she introduced me to people who did puppets, she invited me to birthday parties with puppets, and she asked me to join the board of the Puppet Centre Trust. She did the same, I believe, for and to countless other people (and puppets) over many generations. To me she was puppetry tutor, puppetry mentor, and puppetry friend. She was a force of nature.’ 

Blind Summit: The Table. Blind Summit was co-founded and directed by actor, director and puppeteer Mark Down

A little while after that, with Animations Online up and running, Penny made another introduction: Beccy Smith, also an ex-student, who was going to come to work with Penny at Puppet Centre Trust, and would get us some funding. And that’s what happened – the young Beccy was soon raised up to the lofty heights of Director of PCT, and did indeed bring in some much-needed income for the Centre and for its publication, Animations, which we were now talking about developing further, with an annual review, Animations In Print, being mooted.

‘Penny was a compelling person who inspired many of us during her time at Central,’ says Beccy,  ‘We learnt the value and relevance of puppetry as a contemporary artform through a combination of relentless critique and unstinting loyalty. Like many others, I owe what has become a rewarding career in puppetry and producing work to her. At the Puppet Centre she was a rigorous champion for the artform and a truly inspirational mentor, driven always by the potential for excellence she could discern in new work and new people. What I loved most, however, was her sharp mind (and tongue) and sense of fun. Fearless combatant in the art of The Parson’s Cat and game player of ridiculous murder mysteries (her Frazzle the Clown was unforgettable, darling!) but often beaten in the game of Find the Car. She modelled a unique way of contributing to culture and community.’

Touched Theatre: Twinkle Twinkle. Written and produced by Beccy Smith, featuring company co-director, actor and puppeteer Darren East

Penny, Beccy and I worked together for many years on Animations Online and Animations in Print – and Beccy and I continue to work together on Total Theatre Magazine, which Penny contributed to regularly from its founding in 1989 until 2018.

Penny and I shared duties on numerous panels and talks about puppetry and animation, across the UK. There was many an outing to see shows together. We went to the London International Mime Festival, to Visions Festival, to The Little Angel Theatre, to Riverside and the Southbank and of course to Battersea Arts Centre. With Penny, I met many of the world’s leading puppeteers and puppetry companies. 

We often socialised together, going out for lunch or dinner in London, or going to parties at Beccy’s house in Brighton, which she shares with her husband and collaborator in Touched Theatre, Darren East.

During the various lockdowns of recent years, Beccy switched her legendary murder mystery parties to Zoom, and Penny would participate, determinedly staying in character as Miss-Lost-Her-Marbles or whatever as she struggled with the technology: ‘I can’t see you! Where have you gone?’ was a frequent cry. 

James Foz Foster and Penny Francis, aka Foster and Frazzle the Clowns. Photo Peter Chrisp

Another of Penny’s students was Rachel Riggs, who co-founded DNA puppetry company after leaving Central, and who also went on to be a close friend, a relationship that blossomed from when they met in the Green Room in Manchester 30 years ago, through the Central years and beyond into professional practice for Rachel in both the UK and Australia; continuing right to the end, with Rachel helping to care for Penny in her final days, then joining granddaughter Kati Tārā in the arduous task of clearing Penny’s house and re-distributing her precious books and puppets.

‘Penny was my mentor, and she changed my life,’ says Rachel. ‘When I met her she said, “You absolutely have to come on this course I’m starting at Central School of Speech and Drama – you must, darling, you must!” So I did, and one month later, sleeping on my friend’s floor in a flat in Hampstead, I was enrolled and a real student of puppetry – she made my dream come true… We had a year of amazing experiences, training of the highest quality with master puppeteers in theatre and television, the whole wonderful world of puppetry opened like a magic box of delicious tricks, and we were the luckiest students alive! She took us to the festival at Charleville Mezieres, to perform our student group show, and to experience the amazing universe of international puppetry for the first time. Penny was my fairy godmother, and she lit up the world for me… She demanded proper representation and professional education for puppetry – an artform often seen as being only for children. In an often male-dominated arena of Punch & Judy professors and Machiavellian-minded puppeteers, Penny was a strong and determined woman.’

Penny Francis at home in Bromfelde Road in Clapham in 2017, with Rachel Riggs and puppet friend

Penny Francis was born Penelope Ann Elsdon-Smith in Kolkata in India on the 17th of April 1931. She was an only child, and she attended the Hilltop School in India, before being sent to the UK to complete her education at Cheltenham Ladies College, where her favourite subjects were athletics and dancing. She was, it is said, extremely good at performing even at that early age. She left school at 18 and started a degree in Spanish at Kings College, but left to go onto the stage.

Penny as Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, 1953
Penny’s husband Derek Francis with thier best man Ronnie Barker.

In 1954, she married her husband Derek Francis whilst they were both working at the Oxford Playhouse. They subsequently set up home in South West London; a home described by Derek Parry, family friend and celebrant of her funeral, as an extension of the West End – replete with its own puppet theatre, and an ever-revolving cast of actor friends (Ronnie Barker was best man at Penny and Derek’s wedding). Penny was widowed in 1984 when she was 53. The couple had two children, Tessa and Julia (sadly, Julia died in 2008) and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Puppeteer Ronnie le Drew was a longterm friend of the family:

‘I first met Penny In the early 1960s. I was taken to Penny and Derek’s then-home in Putney. I saw a wonderful production of the Christmas story, performed by Penny and Derek for their two girls, Tessa and Julia.’

Penny was a renowned actress and Ronnie describes Derek as ‘a brilliant character actor, not only on stage, but in television and film, and an amazing puppet maker and designer’.

Ronnie Le Drew and friend

Seeing this performance was the start of a very long friendship for Ronnie and the Francis family. He continues the story:

‘Penny was such a vibrant and passionate woman, and it wasn’t long before she got involved with the puppetry organisations – she had given up her acting career to look after her children, but now her passion and vitality was channelled into puppetry. And it proved immensely helpful to us struggling puppeteers, for she made connections with the Arts Council of Great Britain and other funders. It wasn’t long before she had organised an International Puppetry Festival in London, the first of two. She then went on to co-found The Puppet Centre Trust which had two large rooms (at Battersea Arts Centre) dedicated to puppetry in all its forms; where there was a library of books and videos, and a permanent exhibition of puppets on show. Courses and talks soon took place, as well as performances by new professional puppeteers and established companies. The larger companies performed in the main auditorium of the arts centre. She joined the world puppetry organisation, UNIMA, and travelled to festivals around the globe, championing British puppetry and puppeteers, soon gaining respect globally from many of the world’s most famous puppeteers. She later became the patron of the Curious School of Puppetry, and attended and spoke at many of its events, always with humour and integrity. As she got older, I visited her at her home. Even if her body didn’t allow her to go to her beloved theatre anymore, her mind and humour never left her. She would say “Darling would you like a drink of wine? Just go downstairs and get some glasses…” and when I came back, she produced a bottle of wine which she’d kept by her seat for the occasion.’

Penny was so beloved of so many people within the puppetry and visual theatre community. There follows a number of further reminiscences and appreciations from the people she worked with, taught, mentored and supported. 

I think I speak for everyone when I say: we miss you, Penny! 

Improbable: The Devil and Mr Punch

‘It seems inconceivable that Penny Francis, the great grandmother of puppetry, is no longer with us. Since the very beginning of my journey with the puppets, from The Ghost Downstairs to The Vinegar Works, Dr Faustus, Shockheaded Peter, Satyagraha, and My Neighbour Totoro, which we are working on right now, Penny’s presence was always there. At a time when puppetry was virtually ignored, Penny was a quiet supporter and loud advocate for the puppets. She connected us to a noble lineage that didn’t just know puppetry was more than trivial; it was a form that could go deeper, darker, more radical, and could say the things the humans couldn’t. Penny herself has now become part of that lineage, and her kindness and passion will continue to inspire us through the creativity, commitment, and love of the puppeteers she has supported and loved over the years.’ Phelim McDermott, theatre and opera director, Improbable

‘Many of my most treasured memories of Penny were formed in and around editorial meetings of Animations Online and Animations-in-Print. Penny consistently championed British companies such as Improbable  and Faulty Optic that she admired and felt close to, while at the same time was constantly attentive to French and other European puppetry, and other puppet companies around the world. Her enthusiasm and openness to new forms and styles of puppetry were contagious.’  Matthew Isaac Cohen, Professor, University of Connecticut

Theatre-Rites: Mischief

I met Penny at the Puppet Centre. She had previously supported my father’s puppetry act The Buckmaster Puppets and then went on to support me to receive the Puppetry Bursary. She continued to support me throughout my career, as she has done for so many people in the puppetry world.

We shared a birthday and a passion. She was an inspiration. Her dedication and achievements were so impressive. She will be very missed but her impact lives on.’ Sue Buckmaster, artistic director of Theatre-Rites

‘I was the first Education Officer at the Puppet Centre from 1989 – 1992, just out of teaching and new to London and arts world  – I learned a lot from Penny.  She was the best advocate for puppetry and widening understanding of its possibilities in theatre, performance, education and training. She was funny and inspiring and wove her way uniquely through the world.  She will be much missed.’ Anna Ledgard

Oscar from Kneehigh’s Tin Drum, with puppeteer Sarah Wright. Photo Steve Tanner

As a dear family friend, Penny was a part of every pivotal moment of my creative life. She most importantly supported, as advisor and Patron, the founding of Curious School of Puppetry. Penny delighted in meeting young puppeteers – artists whose passion for puppetry mirrored her own and who gave her energy and hope for the future of the artform she loved so dearly. I miss her deeply, her boundless positivity and her joy in people. Penny and my dad (John Wright, co-founder with Lyndie Wright of the Little Angel Theatre) would both attend any event, say yes to any opportunity, and encourage me to do the same saying, “Go, do it, you never know who you might meet!”’ Sarah Wright, puppeteer and director of the Curious School of Puppetry

Little Angel Theatre: Alice in Wonderland. Puppet by Peter O’Rourke. Cast included Mandy Travis

‘Penny was probably one of the first people I met in the puppetry world, when I was still an actor and she was heading the puppetry course at Central. When I finally stepped onto the puppetry ladder to work with Christopher Leith in 1997 at the Little Angel, Penny was right behind me. She encouraged and mentored me throughout the next 20 years, seeing every single show I was in and having constructive stuff to say about all of them – well, nearly all! She knew what worked and what didn’t, and didn’t hold back if something wasn’t working for her. She had boundless energy and enthusiasm and was generous with her extensive knowledge. She supported me and everyone else who was part of this world of puppetry and animation, whether they were just starting out or at the top of the tree.’ Mandy Travis, actor, puppeteer and musician

DNA Puppetry: Skin Deep Circus. Fidji mermaid puppet made by Rachel Riggs

“It was early 1990. I had studied for a Bachelor of Theatre and worked full time for a puppet theatre for two years in Australia. Newly arrived in London, I asked around for information about the puppetry scene in the UK. Very quickly I was told to speak to Penny Francis, particularly as I was keen to see the inaugural graduating class at ESNAM in France. Penny immediately offered me a lift in her car, so I got on the ferry at Dover as a pedestrian. Penny, with her usual generous spirit, found me lodgings, and introduced me to her European colleagues – and a firm friendship was born. Penny was a powerhouse. For thirty years she encouraged me to keep trying, keep improving. Penny did more to advance and promote the status of puppetry as an artform and the skills of the puppeteer than anyone I have ever known, and likely ever will.” Adam Bennett, puppeteer, co-founder DNA

Shona Reppe: Potato

‘Penny was puppetry royalty and an absolute gem of a person, dedicated to the sector and determined to raise up both established and new puppeteers. I had the joy of being interviewed by her at the very start of my career for Animations Magazine and it was a joy and inspiration to speak to someone so knowledgable and kind. We kept in touch through the years and she continued to be supportive of my work (she even appreciated soap I made her). People like Penny are rare. It’s so sad we have lost her but she will shine on in all who knew her.’ Shona Reppe, theatre-maker & puppeteer (and soap maker)  

‘Penny was very serious about the things that bring light to people’s lives. Theatre for example. She knew the power of the puppet as storytelling master/mistress in her very bones. In a hotel room in Poland, where we were attending an international puppetry festival, she told me over a glass of vodka: “Never forget. Puppets can express things that are too unbearable to utter one moment, leaving you heartbroken, and then double you over laughing with their nonsense and joy the next.” She stayed in touch all the years beyond my time as a student at Central. Although for some reason the Xmas cards I sent her each year were almost annually returned to me in March, despite her insistence that I had her correct address. How very Penny. An international woman of Festive mystery. She gave us an olive tree when we got married. That meant a lot. One of the last times I spent with her in the flesh she was dressed as a clown with orange hair and never broke character. 100% present in every moment. That is how I will remember Penny Francis.’ Zoe Hunter, actor, writer, and puppeteer

Avital Dvory: My Own Wolf. Puppet designer and maker Revital Ariely. Photo Kfir Bolotin

‘I first met Penny during my audition for Central’s MA in Advanced Theatre Practice. At that point in my life (1999), I was in the midst of a soul-searching journey, grappling with questions about my artistic identity. I had explored various facets of performing arts, including acting, mask work, physical theatre, and dance, but none of them seemed to offer me a true sense of belonging.

‘Penny inquired about my past experiences in theatre, and as I shared my journey, she remarked: “Well young lady, you are a puppeteer!” Penny held belief in the visual ideas I harboured, even when I doubted myself. Her encouragement empowered me to bring my artistic visions to life on the stage. I became a professional puppeteer. This gift she gave me remains with me all this years, influencing my theatre work. And Penny’s role as a tutor did not end with my graduation. She continued to ensure my ongoing personal and professional development. I am sure she did it with others as well. She had essential impact on a broader community; from her I got the sense that puppeteering is a kind of family.’ Avital Dvory, puppeteer and visual theatre director

The Hatchling, Plymouth 2021, directed by Mervyn Millar

‘Penny was one of the first people I encountered at the Puppet Centre when it had a physical space in BAC in the 1990s. I met her first as a theatre-maker curious about puppetry, later as an applicant for Puppet Centre bursaries and schemes that would profoundly influence and transform my career, as they did so many others. Penny managed to combine being an extraordinary enthusiast for and champion of puppetry with being a phenomenally acute and perceptive critic. She set extremely high standards for herself and expected them from those around her. She encouraged participation but was most thrilled and excited by virtuosity, expertise, experiment, and the richness of the artform. It wasn’t possible to meet Penny without emerging invigorated, inspired, with a renewed sense of the importance of puppetry, and usually with two or three recommendations of shows to see – she was always keen to promote the work of emerging artists and companies of note.’ Mervyn Millar, puppeteer and chair of the Puppet Centre Trust

Penny Francis reads Beckett’s Ill See Ill Said, in preparation for In the Zone of Stones, 2013

Finally, let’s remember Penny on the occasion that her professional life went full circle, performing one last time with former student Mischa Twitchin, a director and dramaturg, and co-founder of Shunt, the renowned ensemble company that grew out of Central’s MA in Advanced Theatre Practice.

‘Thanks to the generosity of Luis Vieira and Rute Ribeiro, the wonderful directors of the Tarumba/ FIMFA puppetry festival in Lisbon, Penny made her return to the stage after many decades as the doyenne of puppetry in the UK – not on the main stage but directly below it! 

‘In 2013, we played our Beckett show – In the Zone of Stones (with text drawn from Ill Seen Ill Said) – in the atmospheric space directly beneath the main stage of the historic Teatro San Luis in the heart of Lisbon. The low wooden ceiling was held up by wrought iron pillars, in between which we and the audience shared an extraordinary, intimate darkness. In this space, resonating then with Beckett’s narrative, Penny performed a solo “pantomime of memory” with a handful of objects taken from and returned to a small suitcase that she clutched to herself. We did only a few performances but it was all a wonderful experience – from rehearsing in Penny’s living room in Clapham to then participating in this international festival, where Penny was, of course, known to so many of the other artists performing. 

‘The dinners during the festival were as much a highlight as the shows, full of the warmth and humour of Penny’s innumerable friendships. In this respect, her special relationship with Henryk Jurkowski should also be remembered. Amongst so many other projects, Henryk was editor in chief of UNIMA’s World Encyclopaedia of Puppetry and Penny worked tirelessly to make his research and insights accessible to an Anglophone readership, including through a second edition of the essays collected as Aspects of Puppet Theatre, now published by Palgrave (originally published by the Puppet Centre).

‘Perhaps the best word to evoke Penny’s presence might be, indeed, ‘animation’ – whether in the art of theatre or in personal relationships, and most often where these two were interwoven.’

Penelope Ann Francis, born 17 April 1931 in Kolkata, India; died 29 June 2023 in London. 

A film of the above mentioned performance, In the Zone of Stones (with text drawn from Samuel Beckett’s Ill Seen Ill Said), featuring Penny Francis, can be seen on Vimeo: 

 Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice by Penny Francis is published by Palgrave Macmillan (2012). 

The last article written by Penny Francis for Total Theatre Magazine, Puppetry in Performance, can be read here:

A memorial event to commemorate Penny’s life is planned for April 2024. Details will be published nearer the time on the Total Theatre Magazine social media pages.

Featured image (top of page) Silent Tide: The Adventures of Curious Ganz. Director Sarah Wright. Photo Steve Tanner.

Frazzle the Clown and friends at the Circus Murdery Mystery party, held at Beccy Smith and Darren East’s studio in Brighton. Photo Peter Chrisp

Sounds and Visions

A round-up of Out There Festival 2023 which brought good cheer and top-notch physical, visual and musical performance to the streets, parks and seafront of Great Yarmouth. Dorothy Max Prior reports 

It’s 11am on a sunny Saturday in September, and here we are, in St George’s Park in Yarmouth, sitting at a cafe drinking a flat white and eating a pastel de nata – there’s a massive Portuguese-speaking community here, and these delicious little custard tarts are very much a local delicacy. As I sip my (excellent) coffee, I’m watching the park come to life for Out There Festival’s biggest day. 

There are small brightly-coloured vintage caravans scattered around the park, acting as information points. There are craft stalls, and booths selling food and drink. There is an interesting-looking contraption put together by Japanese musician and installation-maker Ichi, a kind of giant marble-run made out of scrap objects, which he’s called Tobogan Gaki. There are flags and tree-dressings and hanging sculptures. A big mechanical metal horse is whinnying and tossing his head – this is Paka’s wonderful creation, the trusty Rusty, who’s about to go Out and About with a Whinny and a Canter. A nun on a giant hoverboard sporting a baby grand piano (Musical Ruth) whizzes past Rusty, who neighs loudly at her. And all across the park, soundchecks and rigging checks are happening at the six or so different stages and pitches, where in just an hour’s time, the day’s programme will kick off with a whole host of outdoor arts and circus shows of all scales and styles.

Ichi and his installation. Photo Kat Mager

Although Saturday is the fullest day, the festival is well and truly in the swing by now. It had started on Friday with a day of professional networking for artists, producers and other industry types. As people arrived in the morning, they were greeted with a What3Words game to share where they’re at and how they feel about the current state-of-play, for their own practice and for the sector. A communal lunch gave people the chance to catch up, and this was followed by a panel discussion on music in outdoor arts – the Sounds Out There strand of the festival saw an emphasis on music as an integral part of the outdoor arts sector, as witnessed in very many of the shows in this year’s programme, in which the music was far more than just an accompaniment to physical performance. At the official festival launch on Friday early evening, tributes were paid to artistic director Joe Mackintosh, on the occasion of this year’s double anniversary: 15 years of the festival and 25 years of Out There Arts, the organisation behind it that Joe has steered from small-scale outfit to Arts Council National Portfolio status. The role that Joe’s right-hand woman, executive director Veronica Stephens, has played in that was also acknowledged. Veronica is well known to many in the outdoor arts industry as as a former director of Zap Arts (in its later days) and producer of Streets of Brighton – a once major part of the Brighton Festival which is sadly no more. Brighton’s loss is Yarmouth’s gain, clearly…

Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste. Photo James Bass

Friday evening saw Party in the Park animating St George’s with a team of renowned DJs and dancers, and the organisation’s HQ at Drill House was also a hive of activity. Meanwhile, along the seafront at St Nicholas’ car park, we had the fabulous opening night show Résiste by Les Filles Du Renard Pale, who festival director Joe described as the ‘all-female powerhouse’: a dynamic duo who combined live music with a breathtaking display of tightwire skills on a rig that was scarily tugged and tilted into different permutations. The duo comprises a talented multi-instrumentalist who is equally at ease with grungy feedback guitar, trip-hop synths, and dreampop vocals; paired with a very talented circus performer who dangles and dances on the wires with wild abandon. And sometimes the musician also joined her, cocooned in an aerial pod hung from the wire! Here was a show where the music and the physical performance worked together in perfect symbiosis – an exciting start to the weekend. A shout out also to local bands Arthur Black and Jehenna, who warmed up the space for an hour or so before the main show, with an onsite bar to help ease everyone into the weekend.

The coming together of circus and live music was something of a theme for this year’s Out There Festival. In one way, nothing new there: live music has always been a key element of traditional circus, and it is usual for clowns to also be talented musicians, incorporating their musical skills into the ground routines (providing the space for aerial rigging and act turnarounds).

Sure Mesure: Barriere. Photo James Bass

But what is different here is the number of companies that are integrating live music into a more progressive or experimental contemporary circus landscape – often with no demarcation between roles.

Take, for example, Sur Mesure with their show Barriere, presented as part of the Spotlight on Flanders showcase, and seen Saturday daytime. The story here is of four border guards who get up to all sorts of high jinks when bored. The staging is a small hut next to a metal barrier which is attached to a winch that can be cranked up and down. Our team of three women and one man have an astonishing array of skills between them. All are fabulous physical performers. The trio of women also gig as a music ensemble, and all three are talented multi-instrumentalists and singers. We have guitar, banjo, various brass instruments, keyboards and percussion in the mix. The barrier, when cranked up, gets used as an aerial rig – giving us a very lovely upside-down coffee-drinking act, and a comedy straps number. The male performer does a great macho put-down as he paso doble dances himself into a tight corner. It is all a joy to behold, and musically brilliant to boot – a mix of great tunes and fabulous sung harmonies. 

Collectif Malunés:We Agree to Disagree. Photo Kat Mager,

Also part of the excellent Spotlight on Flanders programme is Collectif Malunés with We Agree to Disagree, which was the big draw in the park on Saturday afternoon. And my goodness, what a show! It has it all. There are extraordinary circus skills, including high-flying swinging trapeze on one rig and doubles on another, wire-walking, teeter-board, acrobatics and hand-to-hand. It has live music. It has humour a-plenty. And it has audience interaction – and then some. Audience members are roped in to tug ropes and counter-weight, to read out speeches, sing in a choir, play keyboards, throw rice at a ‘wedding’, push buzzers, be climbed upon or jumped over – and even to be taken up as high as the sky on the trapeze (firmly and safely held by the artists). A young girl looks like she’s achieved her heart’s desire as she is carried high, supported from above and below as if by angels; and an elderly woman standing on the trapeze, the aerialist wrapping her arms around her as they are drawn upward to the heavens together, is beaming with joy. It is a fabulous 75 minutes of immersive performance of the highest order – one of the best outdoor shows I’ve seen in many a year, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Zen del Sur: Orbita. Photo David Street

Meanwhile, down at the Marina Centre on the seafront, a stage on the beach is the setting for Orbita, an intriguing mix of music, dance and circus. The music is mostly live classical/flamenco guitar (with a little bit of looping and effects here and there) by a wonderful female guitarist, who moves around the stage with ease; with a fantastic coming together of flamenco dance, urban dance and circus skills (hand-balancing, Cyr wheel, acrobatics) from a very talented male performer.The couple, collectively known as Zen del Sur, come from Cadiz in Andalusia, but are now based in Granada. I’ll admit, as a flamenco aficionado, to some trepidation as I arrived at the start of the show, as these kind of hybrid re-interpretations of flamenco can so often go awry – but within minutes I relaxed, aware that I was in the hands of people who loved the form and had worked hard on a respectful honouring of the traditions whilst demonstrating a wonderful willingness to experiment and to create something brand-new and exciting. I particularly love the way that  objects such as the cajon percussion box and the Cyr wheel are used in an innovative way – the cajon used for hand-balancing, the wheel enclosing the two performers into a tight circle. A magical performance.

Poppy Plowman and Zara Hudson’:Turk(ish). Photo Kat Mager

Poppy Plowman and Zara Hudson’s Turk(ish) also combines live music and contemporary circus. Here, we have cello from Zara Hudson and tightwire from Poppy Plowman. Plus, pre-recorded verbatim text and live spoken word – a mix of autobiography and true-life stories giving us a feminist debunking of the intrinsically racist Western beauty industry. Turk(ish) comes with good intentions, and both performers demonstrate a high level of skill in circus and music. The use of radio mics feels like an unnecessary faff – not least because they are erratically-functioning, so the live text is often inaudible, but also because turning radio mics on and off before doing a hair-hang or a complicated dance along a tightwire feels a little awkward. Perhaps it would be better if all or most of the spoken text became pre-recorded and integrated into the soundscape? But these are decisions for another time – this was the very first outing for a show newly devised, and outdoor arts work inevitably needs to be tried out in the open air with a live audience to know what works and what needs working on. It is early days for (Turk)ish and as the show is supported by Out There Arts it will no doubt get further development.There’s the makings of a good show in there: both performers are clearly talented, there are very many strong visual images, and the ‘subject matter is interesting.

Amoukanama: Photo Kat Mager

One of the most exciting and extraordinary music and circus combinations seen at Out There 2023 was a collaboration that only came about at the eleventh hour. Amoukanama are a Flanders-based acrobatic troupe, comprising performers of African heritage, who only just made it to Yarmouth after a hair-raising dash across Europe to pick up visas that had previously been refused. They were paired with The African Choir of Norfolk, who feature songs from 16 different African nations. After just one Zoom rehearsal, and an in-person meeting a mere hour or so before the show, the two companies pulled out all the stops and wowed the night-time park audience with an extraordinary display of song, dance and acrobatics. We started with the beautifully-dressed women singers – resplendent in traditional circular skirts and head-dresses – doing a short set on a stage. Then, the male acrobats burst into the space, giving us a fabulous display of tumbling and balancing, human towers and pyramids rising and falling. The women then moved down onto the grass, and their lyrical song and traditional dance moves were met by the acrobats, so that all of the space was filled with one harmonious team creating a wondrous mix of music and physical performance. Amoukanama also performed a number of great daytime shows in St George’s Park the next day – seemingly still full of energy.   

Karl Stets of Oktopus Orkestar. Photo David Street

Music of another sort was seen in the Oktopus Orkestar trio which features three wonderful one-man bands: orchestra leader Karl Stets, a former circus performer now focusing on his music, but retaining a circus sensibility and flexibility; the Martin Kasper Orkestra which declares itself to be ‘minimalist and virtuoso all in one’; and Santiago Moreno (from Argentina) who uses a series of pulleys and strings along with his guitar, utilising the principles of puppetry and the complexity of Latin American rhythms. I catch Santiago Moreno’s show down at the Marina Centre, and marvel at just how many things he manages to manipulate with his hands, feet, arms, elbows and head. I see the multi-armed and many-legged Oktopus at Drill House, where each man gets a solo slot, then the three combine to create something extraordinary that is far more than the sum of their parts. It really does sound as a if a full orchestra is on the stage, with brass, wind, guitar, and percussion of all sorts combining into a magnificent musical melée.  The trio were greeted with tumultuous applause at the Drill House – definitely a popular booking!

One of the many things I like about Out There Festival is the thoughtful programming that sees a genuinely eclectic mix of experimental and genre-defying work with the classic crowd pleasers of traditional street theatre.

MarkMark: Team B Gees at Out There Festival 2023 launch at the Drill House. Photo David Street

In this second category come such stalwarts as MarkMark, who seemed to be everywhere over the weekend, with interactive walkabouts such as PC Gone Mad, which comes with the tag line ‘whatever you’re doing, stop it now’ and the ‘spectacularly camp’ swashbuckling Pirates of Northants; an indoor cameo slot for Team B Gees, their irrepressible tribute to The Bee Gees, seen at Friday’s launch event;  and static show The Maniax, presented right outside the Drill House on a high stage, and featuring comic routines, daring stunts and illusions, and a Houdini-inspired escapology finale, replete with audience countdown.

Also outside the Drill House – and at numerous other locations across Yarmouth – were Hicks & Rudkin with Tony & Ray Find Their Feet, in which two mature workmen steal a moment to indulge their passion in eccentric dance. A mobile tool cart becomes the vehicle for a portable sound system, so the team are self-sufficient – and although static for their ten-minute slots, they provide many of the advantages of a walkabout act. This was the show’s very first outing, but it is already a winner – the combination of well-honed physical humour (as the pair attempt to capture an invisible squeaking something-or-other on the ground) with the lovely little dance routines, that include a classic soft-shoe-shuffle and a paso doble, working very well. Of course, the two-man act is a mainstay of physical comedy, in both music hall and film/TV – and these two play on all the tropes of rivalry and one-upmanship with experienced ease. I suppose it could develop into a longer show, but there is something very pleasing about it being a little burst of heart-warming humour that pops up all over the place, in between the longer static shows at the fixed pitches, or anywhere on the streets.

The solo clown or comedian is also well in evidence here, with a great one-man act from Daryl J Carrington, whose word-free act combines clowning, juggling and object manipulation with comic portraiture (in chalk) and audience participation, as he draws (literally) two men in from the audience to form part of his giant-ball-throwing team. Belfast comic Paul Currie – a last-min addition to the programme – is certainly not word free. His act, presented on the seafront stage, features a barrage of patter from beginning to end. It’s great stuff! Described by the man himself as ‘a screaming hysteric waterslide ride of joy all the way back to your childhood’ it’s chock full of popular culture references, mostly from TV and film of the past couple of decades so much of it goes over my head, but I love it all anyway. He has us all flying through the air riding a dragon, playing imaginary pan-pipes, and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. There are an endless number of props, dragged out of a suitcase he constantly rummages through. He plays a ‘hus-key-board’ – a little Casio inserted into a husky dog puppet – and a pair of panda puppets become his ‘panda hands’. There are plenty of comic references to his Belfast childhood of 40 years ago, at the height of The Troubles. When handing out party poppers to a row of kids he says ‘Beware Belfast men handing you explosives’. A noisy, windy beach might not be the ideal pitch for this sort of act, but Paul Currie overcomes all obstacles and conquers the crowd. His control of the ‘house’, the ad-libbing and the full-on interaction with the audience (particularly the children) is of the highest order. A grand success!

Still with the comedy: The Miraculous Theatre Company’s Dead starts as a processional piece as we follow a pair of undertakers (a classic pantomime duo of bossy fool and obsequious servant) as they manoeuvre a coffin from a pub through the backstreets of Yarmouth. They rap on church doors to be let in, stop the traffic with officious bluster, and enlist audience members to help carry the coffin. When they arrive at the Drill House, they set the coffin in place on a bier outside. The energy goes up a notch as we learn that our undertaker friends are fed-up with their usual traditional offerings, and have decided instead to transform the business into Happy Endings Funeral Services. Audience members are enlisted to don grass skirts and Hawaiian leis in rainbow colours, and to dance and play the ukulele to see the dead off with gay abandon. Only one problem: they seem to have lost the body… A solid, old-fashioned piece of British street theatre, well realised and performed by two seasoned artists who know how to work an audience.

L’Abre a Vache: Goodbye Persil. Photo Kat Mager

French company L’Abre a Vache are also a comic duo, but of a fabulously surreal bend. Goodbye Persil is the story of two brothers on a mission: to bury their dearly departed dog in a small roadside park. Sporting balaclavas and glasses, one tall and dressed in casual hipster mode, one short and wearing an ill-fitting shirt and tie, they make an odd couple. They arrive in a car which, like the famous Herbie the Love Bug, has a mind of its own. They hop out, dead dog wrapped in a blanket, and try to locate their spades, and their dog’s beloved toys, for the burial – but then the trouble starts. The seemingly sentient car is out to sabotage: it sounds its horn whenever it wants to, turns its windscreen wipers on and off, locks the brothers out, and shakes and bangs at random moments. All the neighbourhood dogs are alerted, and a ferocious barking starts up from over the wall, causing our heroes to go into total panic mode. Worse, as they dig the grave, pipes would seem to be hit, and fountains spurt all over the place. The show is a text-book example of a great concept brought to fruition with perfect precision and attention to detail, and fantastic performances from both actors. Street theatre of the highest order – and managing to be both crowd pleasing and innovative at the same time. One of the highlights of the Out There 2023 programme for me.   

Other theatre offerings included the UK’s Inverted with The Precious Thing, a tale of environmental concerns about planetary care and water preservation that uses colourful costume and set (all yellow to start, with purple creeping in slowly), well-chosen props, and a soft and gentle performance mode to tackle its subject in a pleasingly non-polemical manner. The two performers use object manipulation, including some very nice hat juggling, acrobatics, hand-balancing and contortion, and clowning to tell their tale. Look after what is precious, is the message – it might not last for ever. With so many ‘take care of our environment’ shows out there, it’s good to see one that treads softly softly rather than ramming the message down our throats.

Cocoloco: Shangri-LaLa. Photo Kat Mager

Cocoloco is a Norfolk-based company supported by Out There Arts. Their latest work Shangria-LaLa, a 2023 premiere, is set on a mini-site of its own on the edge of St George’s Park, a circle of calico tents enclosed by a fence. Shangri-LaLa promises the delights of heaven on earth, exploring famous utopian ideas from Avalon to Xanadu. A showman brings us through the entrance into the site where we are welcomed with a short speech introducing the ‘I Have a Dream’ theme, then led off into the first utopian space, Arcadia, where all is gentle pastoral pleasures. I’m picked to be a sheep, which is a great honour, and dressed in a woolly sheep-robe and mask, sat knitting on a bale of hay (rather like the old ma sheep in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I think to myself). Baaaaah! All is indeed an Arcadian utopia – until the butcher arrives to lead away us sheep… Next comes Avalon, where we encounter the Knights of the Round Table, who are sat around a circular table, putting the world to rights. A note of disharmony creeps in when we hear what Lancelot has been up to; and there is also a rather odd, deliberately anachronistic, debate on gender and sexuality that I don’t quite get. And so we continue, into more utopias. Cocoloco’s very own mystic, Dr Yaya, takes us time-travelling; we get a touchy-feely New Age moment of gazing into another’s eyes; and we get to write our utopian wishes onto a wall. A good time is had by all! It’s an ambitious show with a large cast and a great deal of audience interaction and participation – and thus the sort of show that has to be rehearsed in public, so to speak. This was its first outing, and I am sure it will blossom and grow with each new presentation. Big dreams are nothing without a dash of pragmatism is the message, it would seem.

Interactive shows have always been a key component of a successful street theatre festival, so it was good to see so many different sorts at Out There. The Losers Arcade is a giant games emporium with nothing to lose. ‘Leave your ego behind and join the Losers as you focus on putting the fun back in failure’ says the invitation. Like Shangri-LaLa it’s on its own site within a site, set up like a mini fairground, bobbing ducks and all. I try my luck on a roulette wheel spin and am rewarded with a shot of sour apple liqueur (there is a non-alcoholic alternative, I’m told). Every one’s a winner!

Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent. Photo courtesy of Mark Copeland / Insect Circus

Right next to it is a tent housing Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent, in which photographer Martin Thompson is set up in a Victorian style photo studio, with a low stage, a beautiful backdrop, a selection of props (knives! clubs! balls!), and two rails of splendid dressing up clothes. The Prof is aided and abetted by artists Mark Copeland and Sarah Munro – they of the legendary Insect Circus Museum. Audience are invited to stroll up and have their portraits taken, dressed as a circus artiste. You can have the end result emailed to you for free, or buy a print for a mere £2. It’s a lovely idea, and when I go along – to be kitted out as an over-the-hill pierrot in faded gold – I’m second in line to a family who are dressed as strongman, trapeze girl and baby clown in a tiny pink hat; and followed by an excited gaggle of girls who all want to wear flamenco dresses. A roaring success which will hopefully return to a future Out There Festival.

This lovely booth show is an example of one of the unique festival commissions that differentiates it from many of the country’s outdoor art events. With the Without Walls shows dominating the programming of so many festivals these days, it is good to see Out There putting on some very different work that you won’t get to see anywhere else. Pair that with the collaborations with overseas partners that the organisation has nurtured – with Catalan arts organisations in past editions, and Circuscentrum in Flanders here in 2023, for example – and you have a truly unique programme.

Out There Festival is always a great event. This year’s programme was full of phenomenal work in so many different forms and genres – a fitting celebration for both the 15th edition of the festival and the silver jubilee of the organisation that presents it, Out There Arts.

It is also the end of an era – and heralds the start of a new one – with a move for the 2024 festival from September to the May-June spring half-term week, alongside the exciting news that the company has received a substantial National Lottery Heritage Fund award to develop its second venue, the Ice House, into a year-round national centre for circus and outdoor arts training and professional development.

It has been a fabulous story to date – with a lot more to come from Out There Arts over the coming years. Here’s to the next 25 years!

Paka: Out and About with a Whinny and a Canter. Photo Kat Mager

Featured image (top of page): Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste. Photo David Street

Out There Festival ran 15–17 September 2023, its 15th edition.

Over those years, the festival has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme, attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year.

Out There Arts and the festivals and events it produces has built a national and international reputation for world class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement.

The Ice House is set to be transformed into a new Centre of Excellence in Outdoor Circus and Arts. Built between 1851 and 1892, the Ice House was once a vital asset in the Great Yarmouth’s once-thriving fishing industry, enabling the storage of freshly caught seafood before transportation to London’s Billingsgate fish market.

Out There Arts recently received news that their National Lottery Heritage Fund bid had been succesful, and the project also receives support from Great Yarmouth Towns Deal, Brineflow, and the Architectural Heritage Fund, enabling the Ice House building to be repurposed into an arts and circus training hub, with opportunities for performances plus a licensed bar.

The completion of the project, which is being led by Out There Arts, would be a significant step towards the realisation of a vision for Great Yarmouth being recognised as the UK Capital for Circus and Outdoor Arts.

The development for The Ice House has been a long term project for Out There Arts. Much of the vision had been established with the local community through community consultations and events surrounding the building.

Out There Festival returns to Great Yarmouth 30 May – 2 June 2024


One man band Karl Stets’ feet. Photo David Street

The Streets are Alive…

 … with the Sound of Music! Dorothy Max Prior previews the Out There Festival 2023, which brings a wealth of physical, visual and aural delights to the streets, parks and beaches of Great Yarmouth

It’s almost time for Out There International Festival of Outdoor Arts and Circus, which takes place annually in Great Yarmouth, a small coastal town in the east of England which is fast becoming the UK capital of circus. 

2023 is a double anniversary: 15 years of Out There Festival, but also the 25th year of Out There Arts, formerly known as Seachange Arts. Which means it’s a silver jubilee for artistic director Joe Mackintosh, who has been there from the start. 

But talking to Joe, it’s clear he’s not resting on his laurels:

‘The main thing is that we are changing all the time,’ he says. ‘A lot of people say it takes 10 years to establish a festival, and that’s about right, but at 15 years, we are still learning…’

And there are changes afoot! This will be the last time that the festival will be held in September, as it is moving to a spring slot from 2024 onwards. More on that anon…

But first let’s take a look at this year’s programme. Out There Festival 2023 boasts 34 artistic companies drawn from 17 countries, featuring 108 performances, with a dozen UK premieres – as well as a wealth of opportunities for the professional sector, the local community, and audience members from near and far to participate.

As has become the tradition at Out There, Friday will be a day for professional networking – with the inclusion this year of young artists from the local sixth form college and schools, who are being drawn into the professional fold. 

From Friday evening through to Sunday evening, the streets, parks and seafront of Yarmouth will be ablaze with colour and sound as artists take over public spaces and animate them with physical and visual (and often musical) performance of all sorts.

Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste

Highlights include what Joe calls ‘the all-female powerhouse’ Les Filles Du Renard Pale who will be presenting Résiste at St Nicholas’ car park: ‘an absolutely unmissable tour de force of tightwire and music’ combining the thrills of French contemporary circus performance and the atmospheric sounds of Bristolian trip hop music. This show, though presented outdoors, is one of a few that will ticketed at this year’s festival.

‘Ticket holders will be able to go onto the site at 6pm, have a beer and watch a number of local bands performing – all of whom are led by young women or non-binary musicians – before the main event’ says the festival’s executive director Veronica Stephens. 

Other ticketed shows are indoors, at St George’s Theatre. Opposable Thumb Theatre will be bringing their London International Mime Festival hit Big Boys Don’t Cry [link to TT review] to Yarmouth, posing the question: What makes a man? A serious question explored with a light touch by two very talented clowns. Then, there’s Norfolk poet Luke Wright’s Silver Jubilee, a ‘warm and honest hour of poems and stand-up with the directness and pathos that has made him one of the most popular live poets in England’.

But most shows at Out There Festival will, as ever, be outdoor, free to audience and unticketed.

Spotlight on Flanders at Out There Festival: Amoukanama

A strand in this year’s festival is a focus on work from Flanders. There are four fabulous Flemish companies – Collectif Malunés, Sur Mesure, Amoukanama and Circus Katoen – in the Spotlight on Flanders programme. All four companies have previously performed at Out There, so this is a new manifestation of an ongoing relationship.

Veronica points out that the shape of the festival is a little different this year: ‘We don’t have a big Saturday night parade, but have instead programmed a lot of shows that can play to large audiences, at different sites.’

She goes on to say that this year, there is a drive to build up different outdoor ‘hubs’ for the festival – so that rather than so much focus being placed on St George’s Park and its multiple stages (which will still be there, though!) there will be other hotspots throughout the town, at Trafalgar Square, St Nicholas Car Park, and Deneside/Blackfriars. These hubs will each have a bar, so people can move between them, or hang out at their favourite site. ‘We want to create a participatory, immersive event’ says Veronica – each hub its own ‘mini environment within the festival’. 

Losers Arcade

For example, at Trafalgar Square, there will be the Losers Arcade – a giant games emporium with nothing to lose. ‘Leave your ego behind and join

the Losers as you focus on putting the fun back in failure’ says the blurb. ‘Madcap games and challenges at the only arcade were taking part and becoming one of the gang is far more valued than actually doing well.’ This little hub will have an emphasis on local artists, community, and young people – so will also be hosting Broken Spoke for poetry and spoken word, which will be all local poets/artists. The site will also host a circus performance from Duo Vita, who are the local youth troupe Drillaz Circus’ resident circus tutors (all the way from Colombia!); plus a selection of young bands and other emerging talent programmed by Play, Produce, Promote, working with Freshly Greated / Creative People and Places.  

Of course, St George’s Park will remain a key site, with the traditional Party in the Park on Friday night, billed as ‘Great Yarmouth’s best outdoor party, with DJ’s, dancing, Lacons festival ale, Gonzos cocktails and street food’. 

This will be followed by a whole weekend’s worth of quality shows on a number of park pitches. The Drill House, round the corner from the park, will also be a hub for socialising and participating in festival workshops, as well as hosting the late-night Festival Lounge.

Another element to the festival will be the Sounds Out There strand, with an emphasis on music as an integral part of the outdoor arts and circus sectors – music not just as an accompaniment to physical performance, but music in the foreground – a focus on innovative and unusual music performance in outdoor arts and circus. The programme seeks to inspire emerging musicians and music professionals with talks, behind the scenes access and performances, highlighting how music can be used in ways that reach beyond conventional imaginings. 

Circus meets music – Poppy Plowman & Zara Hudson’: Turk(ish)

Interesting and innovative combinations of music and circus on offer include  Zen Del Sur’s fusion of Flamenco and acrobatics, Orbita, described as a fiery fusion of acrobatic dance, urban dance, flamenco, Cyr Wheel, Boleadoras and acrobalance. A radical combination indeed! Then, there’s Poppy Plowman & Zara Hudson’s Turk(ish) – an autobiographical performance using of live music, contemporary circus and storytelling to discuss personal struggles of identity and Western beauty standards.

’There is an emerging trend of circus artists who are also high level musicians,’ says Joe, citing the ‘jaw-dropping’ one-man band trio Oktopus Orkestar – featuring  Karl Stets, a former circus performer now focusing on his music, but retaining a circus sensibility and flexibility.


The one-man band acts who will be merged into Oktopus Orkestar  – subverting this traditional street busker trope –  are the aformentioned Karl Stets, for whom ‘classic melodies and new material are mistreated by a character obsessed with playing everything simultaneously’; the Martin Kasper Orkestra which  declares itself to be ‘minimalist and virtuoso all in one’; and Santiago Moreno (from Argentina) who uses a series of pulleys and strings along with his guitar, utilising the principles of puppetry and the complexity of Latin American rhythms.

Then, there’s Ichi from Nagoya in Japan, a star of Out There Festival 2022, who takes the notion of a one-man band to new limits, using quirky handmade instrument inventions such as his stilt-bass, Kalilaphone, balloon-pipes, and tapumpet. Ping-pong balls, typewriter, toys and everyday objects will also make an appearance.

Two companies that have received developmental support from Out There Arts, via residencies at the Drill House arts centre, are bringing work to the festival. Hicks and Rudkin will present a world premiere of Tony & Ray Find Their Feet, in which two mature workmen steal the moment to indulge their passion in eccentric dance. And CocoLoco’s Shangri-LaLa promises the delights of heaven on earth, exploring famous utopian ideas from Avalon to Xanadu – this also a world premiere.

Circo Rum Ba Ba: The Whale

Elsewhere in the line-up, Paka the Uncredible will be Out and About with a Whinny, as Rusty the mechanical horse slips his tether and is off on a solo adventure; and Circo Rum Ba Ba’s The Whale will offer people the opportunity to squeeze into the belly of an enormous inflatable Sperm Whale where they will find a bubbling, kelp-swirling ocean. Exquisite puppets, comedy and music abound in this tale of sea creatures and their battle to survive. Puppetry of a completely different sort can be found in Professor Patel’s Bollywood Punjeet & Judygee Show, an imaginative modern day twist on the traditional Punch and Judy show, presented by Jack in a Box Entertainment.

As ever, participation as well as spectating will be a key element of the festival. This has never been an ‘add on’ for Out There Arts, but always integral to the organisation’s work.

This year, Duckie’s The Posh Club at the Drill House will, on the 9th of September, open a week of pre-festival community engagement. The Posh Club is a participatory dance and cabaret event aimed at the over 60s – although they can bring along their younger companions! 

Duckie: The Posh Club

From the 11th till the 15th, East Norfolk Sixth Form College will be a hub of activity, with students from schools and colleges across Great Yarmouth coming along to participate in workshops led by musicians and circus artists who are performing in the festival. On Thursday 14th, Out There will facilitate a Careers Day for young aspiring musicians – with an emphasis on ‘thinking outside the box’ exploring the potential working with outdoor arts.

‘The college is very supportive and have excellent links with schools in the borough,’ says Veronica, ‘It’s a good, positive relationship’. One that they will bring forward into future festivals.

This increased engagement with schools and colleges is one of the main reasons that the festival will, from 2024 onwards, be in spring half-term week (end of May/ beginning of June) rather than September.

‘At the moment we do engagement work in June and July and then there’s a six-week summer holiday,’ says Veronica. ‘If it’s earlier in the year, it can be embedded in as part of the curriculum.’

‘That half term week will mean that there will be potential for more days –to spread out a little,’ adds Joe. ‘Out There is now the biggest Outdoor Arts weekend festival in the UK and trying to see all the work in two days is tricky.’

Joe also says that another reason for the move is that the organisation has, for the past couple of years, run a second festival, Fire on the Water, in late October.

‘Fire on the Water last year sold 29,000 tickets in 6 days – in the off-season in Yarmouth!’ says Joe.

So that’s two massive festivals for the organisation to run close together…

‘Piggy-backing events – producing Out There Festival in September and Fire on the Water in October-November is challenging for the team!’ says Joe. ‘Moving Out There to the spring allows us some breathing space and planning time’.

‘September has worked for us, but it’s time to try something else…’ he adds ‘but it is the end of an era…’

Yes, the end of an era – but no doubt the start of a fabulous new one!

Out There Festival Lounge at the Drill House. Photo David Street

Out There Festival, now celebrating its 15th edition, has built a national and international reputation for world class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement.

Perched on the east coast, closer to the continent than the capital, Out There has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme, regularly attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year.

Out There Festival runs 15–17 September 2023, and is preceded by a week of community-engaged activity, starting with Duckiie’s The Posh Club at Drill House on the 9th of September.

Featured image (top of page): Sur Mesure: Barriere, appearing as part of the Spotlight on Flanders programme at Out There Festival 2023.

Spotlight on Flanders is a project of Circuscentrum, funded by VLAIO (Brexit Adjustment Reserve) with the aim to invest in long-term cooperation between Flanders and the UK in the circus field. The project puts Flemish circus creations in the spotlight and brings together Flemish and UK circus professionals to facilitate exchange.

For full details of the programme, including all free and ticketed events, see  

Box office link for ticketed shows:

Out There Festival aideonce photo by Katherine Mager

Nuggets – Edinburgh Festival & Fringe Round-Up 2023

Curated programmes, trusted venues, familiar artists and producers – Dorothy Max Prior plays it safe at the Edinburgh Festivals 2023

Edinburgh, August 2023. I’m standing in a queue (inevitably) waiting to go into the Main Hall at Summerhall to see a sold-out show – Laura Murphy’s Making a Spectacle of Herself.  ‘It feels like we’re back to normal’ says Amy, the venues’s press officer, who is standing in the queue in front of me, ‘last year felt like a rehearsal…’ And yes, I concur – 2020 was cancelled, 2021 was a very minimal affair with hardly any shows, 2022 saw the Fringe relaunch, and 2023 feels like we’re back with a bang. Kind of.

With around 3,500 shows in the 2023 programme, the Fringe is down on its 4,000 shows plus pre-Covid record. And there have recently been calls from many quarters for the whole thing to be overhauled – with extortionate costs for accommodation and venue hire, the Fringe is just not viable for unsupported artists. Ticket prices have risen, and audiences are cautious. Artists are also wary: the old days of rocking up and taking a chance, hoping that yours will be the show that does it all –  grabs the attention of the press, builds a word-of-mouth success story, fills houses, and gets the awards – is more-or-less gone. Unless you have support of some support, it’s just not feasible. At the very least, you need to have previously made and toured the show to decent venues or festivals, and hopefully garnered a few favourable reviews or accolades. 

I will confess that, with no resources or financial support for Total Theatre Magazine, I’m here for a mere four days, and I am taking a cautious stance, only seeing shows that I want to see – shows that are part of a curated programme, at a venue I trust, and/or are by artists whose work I know. Maybe that’s a shame – but it’s how things are.

It was different when Total Theatre Magazine was a properly funded venture. I came to Edinburgh for the full month, my rent paid for (and even, a couple of decades back when we were an Arts Council Revenue Funded Organisation, on full pay with bonuses and expenses – those were the days!). Wearing both my magazine editor’s hat and my Total Theatre Awards judge’s wig, I saw scores of shows. I went through the Fringe print brochure (nicknamed the Edinburgh telephone directory), highlighting anything vaguely appropriate to TT. I saw shows I wanted to review, but I took a lot of chances, heading off to see shows that had a good title, or a nice photo in the brochure. I also went to see shows that had submitted themselves for consideration for a Total Theatre Award, and went to shows that the Awards producers asked me to see because assessors had differing opinions, plus making it a priority to see the whole Longlist before the TT Awards judging process began.

No more. I don’t know what will become of the Awards, but they are not happening for now – and perhaps their moment is gone. After all, we set them up to provide an alternative to the Scotsman Fringe Firsts, who wouldn’t consider the sort of mostly word-free physical and visual work we supported. But then Fringe Firsts, and Herald Angels, started going to the very same shows we awarded. And it all started to feel a little – odd. The one Total Theatre Award I do feel is unique and needs to be preserved if at all possible is the circus award, supported over many years by Jacksons Lane. This year’s offerings showed us that circus really has grown as an artform over recent decades – and I saw a fair few shows in my four-day whirlwind visit. (See the circus round-up here.)

Wunderbaum / Marleen Scholten: La Codista / The Queuer

So, in my state of caution, it was good to see specific curated programmes like Big in Belgium, Start to Finnish, and Made in Scotland have survived and thrived. Inclusion in one of these programmes is some sort of guarantee of quality. So it is, with no apology, that  I report back on shows that I’ve seen as part of these various curated programmes. 

I’ve previously written about two of the Big in Belgium shows – Funeral by Ontroerend Goed, and The Van Paemel Family by SKaGen, here – but also part of that programme was La Codista / The Queuer, by Wunderbaum – presented, like the rest of the programme, at Zoo Southside. La Codista is a one-woman show written and performed by Marleen Scholten which uses research into the bizarre profession of being a queuer for other people – getting their prescriptions, tax office documents etc. – the resulting research generating the text of the work. It’s a good enough show, a good script, well performed, with simple but effective staging – but in the ferment that is the Edinburgh Fringe it doesn’t quite have the extra spark needed to push it forward into the glittering frontline, and perhaps suffers a little for being seen inbetween those other two totally brilliant Big in Belgium shows Funeral and The Van Paemel Family . (There is a fourth show called Sneakpeek Shadow Game, an online ‘real time digital documentary’ by SKaGen which I didn’t get to experience.)

Agit-Cirk: Insomniac’s Fable

The four-strong From Start to Finnish programme included a show I’ve previously seen at Reykjavik Fringe (and can highly recommend), Them by Spindthrift Theatre. There’s also a show I would have loved to have seen but just couldn’t fit in, Chevalier Hobbyhorse Circus by the brilliant Race Horse Company, nominated for a Total Theatre Award in 2019 for Super Sunday; and two shows I knew nothing about. 

So I took a chance on one of those – Insomniac’s Fable by Agit-Cirk, a ‘delicate story with a Hitchcockian glint in its eye’, merging juggling and ballet. Of course, Gandini Juggling has set a high benchmark for work exploring the juggling-dance dynamic, but Insomniac’s Fable is its own thing, and was worth the gamble. 

The start is a little shaky – in the first scene, to the tune of ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, boy meets girl, and he juggles whilst she dances, but the interaction is token. As we move deeper into the dreamscape, with the addition of some interesting lighting states, some good shadowplay and use of scale, and some rather lovely projections of folkloric lino-cut images (sleeping wolf, tangled trees, a lighthouse on a cliff, a girl gazing over the sea into the horizon), the piece gets stronger. And the dance and juggling become more integrated. In one scene, the girl is manipulated by red ribbons tied to her limbs, so she becomes a marionette. In another scene, the girl dances to a raunchy blues number, using the boy’s juggling hoops as if they were feathery burlesque fans, then finds herself trapped in hoop ‘leg irons’. The metaphors are clear – he longs to own and command, she constantly pushes away and flies off. A little old-fashioned on the sexual politics, then – but Insomniac’s Fable is promoted as a surrealist exploration of dream and fantasy, so maybe that’s OK! An enjoyable hour of physical and visual storytelling.

Tortoise in a Nutshell: Concerned Others

Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Concerned Others is presented as part of Made in Scotland – another curated programme within the Fringe. It is an intimate tabletop performance that takes as its starting point the harrowing fact that Scotland has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe. It uses verbatim texts by doctors, patients and family members gathered up in their research process. These recorded texts are paired with a raft of visual theatre devices: the company’s trademark  miniature worlds manipulated by the lone performer (company co-founder Alex Bird), puppetry and mask work, and object animation with live-feed video of some every lovely shoebox installations. It’s another show that starts a little weakly, with the miniature world of tiny figures feeling a little bit superfluous to the verbatim texts which are (and perhaps there’s no avoiding this) commanding the space, and are all pretty dour and depressing. But later, it goes deeper in, and the visual theatre takes the upper hand – I love the little shoebox rooms in particular. There’s one that gives us the perfect dolls house sitting room: velvet couch, standard lamp et al. ‘Did you expect peeling wallpaper and damp?’ says the recorded female voice, talking of her teenage child’s addiction, and the surprised response of the social worker who saw that she came from what might be called a ‘nice’ home. There is, inevitably, the question of who this sort of issue-based theatre work is for. I doubt if the educated art-loving audience here at Summerhall learnt anything that they didn’t know about drug addiction. I personally didn’t – although I was pleased on two counts: that alcohol was included as a killer addiction (with a nice video montage of TV beer ads); and that the piece ended on a note of hope. People do escape this hell…

Cora Bissett: What Girls Are Made Of

Also part of Made in Scotland comes What Girls Are Made Of , the smash-hit, gig-theatre show that charts the true story of Cora Bissett’s ‘rollercoaster journey from 90s indie-kid to wised-up woman’. It’s not a new show – it won a Herald Angel and a Fringe First in 2018 – but I hadn’t seen it before, and people keep telling me I should – me a being a post-punk drummer in the 1970s and 1980s and all that.  

Here’s the blurb: ‘It’s 1992. In a small town in Fife, a girl is busting out of her skin to get out into the world and see what’s on offer. And an ad in the local paper declares: Band Seeks Singer…’ Thus, a schoolgirl from Glenrothes is catapulted to a rock-star lifestyle as the singer in a hot new indie band called Darlingheart. ‘Touring with Radiohead, partying with Blur, she was living the dream. Until she wasn’t…’

It is written and performed by Cora Bissett (who won a Total Theatre Award for Roadkill), the text based on her own teenage diaries, and the show framed nicely by the story of clearing out the family home and finding the diaries in a box in the loft, wedged in between the wedding photos and significant birthday cards. It is performed with a punchy upbeat energy, even through the difficult scenes, deftly directed by Orla O’Loughlin, and features a live band (with a female drummer – oh yes!) who also multi-task as various characters in the story.

And yes, it’s an enjoyable ninety minutes, and I’m glad I’ve finally seen it – but I did find it hard to relate to. It seems that all the work we did with punk in the 1970s – which saw a real revolution, women joining and fronting bands left right and centre – had somehow, by the 1990s, gone back to the pre-punk crappy world of female musicians in general, and lead singers in particular, preyed upon and exploited by managers, A&R men, journalists, and record company executives. Good God, what is all this nonsense? It’s heartbreaking.

But I liked the homage to Patti Smith (‘I didn’t know if I was in love with her or wanted to be her’ says Cora) and the Horses motif that runs through the show, Cora casting herself as a sturdy Shetland pony. I enjoyed the stories about her large-handed, nurturing dad and the mum who had herself nursed dreams of being a singer. I like the schooldays stories – with characters like hard-nut Caitlin, and the girl that nobody speaks to because she smells, drawn well as little cameos. The story doesn’t end with the band – there’s Cora’s time as a folksy alternative singer, a spell at drama school, making theatre, meeting her soul mate, and having a baby all coming into the tale – but unlike the evocations of her childhood and adolescence, this all feels truncated, squeezed into the narrative to wrap things up nicely and give the show a feel-good upbeat ending. I’d have found it stronger if it had stayed with the childhood and coming-of-age story.

Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillip: Lost Soles

Also autobiographical, in part anyway, the Aurora Nova produced Night Soles sees theatre director and designer Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips with a story about a Wyoming tap dancer who is stranded in Cuba. Using an interesting combination of tap dancing, shadowplay, and object theatre we meet the performer’s own tap teachers, including a grandmother who was Donald O’Connor’s teacher, and later danced with him on the vaudeville circuit. This moves us into a tap dance on a table that references O’Connor’s legendary table-top duet with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. The table is used later in a scene where Phillips (revisiting working as a waiter) taps his way along a line of percussive plates. Elsewhere, a locker decorated with old cabaret and movie-star photos and flyers (including one for cat boxing, a reference that goes over my head!) turns into a pool table. Vintage tunes are played on a tinny dansette record player; and a shadow theatre scene plays out behind clothes pegged on a washing line. It’s a show full of vivid pictures in endearing scenes, driven by the scenography (as befits a performer who is also a designer), with a strong physical performance from this lone actor-dancer who seems equally at home dancing, reminiscing and slipping into the skin of other characters (his Cuban accent sound pretty authentic to me!). But somehow it all feels a little less than the sum of its parts…  I think because previous Thaddeus Phillips productions seen at Ed Fringe  – 17 Border Crossings and Inflatable Space – were so very good, so beautifully constructed with such strong dramaturgy, that expectations were high. These two were great shows – and Night Soles is merely a good show. It’s a tough environment in Edinburgh, particularly when you are in competition with your own past successes!

Geoff Sobelle: Food

Also a one-man show, and also using tables and objects to tell stories, comes Geoff Sobelle with Food – the only Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) show I catch on this trip. Geoff is also part of the Aurora Nova stable – and indeed a Fringe veteran. I first saw him many years ago in the days when Aurora Nova had their own venue at St Stephen’s Church, where he was performing as one half of Rainpan 43 in the utterly brilliant All Wear Bowlers which honours both vaudeville and silent movies. He then went on to collaborate with Charlotte Ford in the Total Theatre Award winning Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl – an almost word-free play in which the human world gets hijacked by nature.

And there are echoes of these and other earlier works in Food: specifically, the deft clowning, the absurdism, the love of magic and illusion, and the ongoing interest in how humans inter-relate with whatever environment they find themselves in. For EIF, Geoff has previously presented HOME and The Object Lesson, Food being the third in a trilogy rooted in a desire to explore the 21st century human condition, and to place the audience in the centre of the fabric of each show.

As with these earlier works, illusion, installation and home-spun mechanics are all used to create a fabulous environment. In this case, it’s a dinner party, set round an enormous table. There is audience on three sides, and a backdrop of flock wallpaper and an oil painting. There’s an enormous white cloth, and a red satin runner; plates and cutlery and glasses. Geoff Sobelle is our waiter, serving wine and giving out menus. The piece starts slowly (a little too slowly and shakily for me) with audience members invited, via codes on the menus, to share memories of food and drink consumption and cooking. Maybe I hit a bad night, but the stories we got were all pretty dull – tedious holiday memories or, ‘Er, I can’t really remember’ responses that made me squirm a bit.

But never mind – in the next section, things pick up, as different people are prompted to put in their orders. Things get more and more surreal – a bowl of apples or a portion of rice, but also a dish of raw eggs and, in the first of many magical transformations, the lighting state shifts to an icy blue and the white table becomes into an Arctic landscape, our intrepid explorer cutting a circle in the ice and plunging his arm down into the water to capture a slippery fish, delivered wriggling on its plate to the diner. We move away from audience interaction for a while as Sobelle proves his worth as a top-notch clown and magician in a fabulous scene of Gargantuan greed – every single thing to hand seemingly devoured as he moves from one apple to the whole bowl, to the raw eggs, the many platters of rice, and numerous bottles of wine – the lot. Another fabulous transformation as the massive tablecloth and everything on it (including somebody’s mobile phone – that’ll learn ’em) is whisked away to reveal an earthy landscape. Bison roam, grains sprout, tiny tractors are handed to audience members to manipulate. Another hole is dug, and this time it’s oil, not fish, that comes out. Cue the arrival in the landscape of oil rigs and tankers and houses and garages and stores. By now, we are all engaged – building towns and moving trucks  around the space.

The piece ends on a litany. An audience member (me, as it happens!) finds her head and neck gently embraced by Geoff’s hands. ‘Is this OK?’ he quietly asks, and I nod. It turns out that his fingers are loaded with something (working a bit like Bluetooth bud speakers, I suppose) that convey a female voice into my ears – a voice that only I can hear. ’Please repeat what I say,’ says the voice, ‘and don’t worry if you get things wrong’. Millet, barley, corn, wheat, she says, and I say. Later, we’ve moved on to cucumbers, Krispy Kremes, and kumquats.. All the things we’ve hunted and grown and picked and made and marketed and transported across the world. Eaten and digested, discarding what we don’t have a use for. Bison and birds, fish and fowl, quinoa, and Coca Cola – it’s all here.   

Food for thought indeed – and another brilliant success for the legendary Geoff Sobelle, who ‘began as a magician, continued as an actor and arrived as a clown’.  All of those things are in ample evidence here.

Featured image (top of page) Geoff Sobelle: Food

Geoff Sobelle: Food was seen in The Studio, 9 August 2023, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2023. 

All other shows presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 

Wunderbaum / Marleen Scholten: La Codista / The Queuer was seen at Zoo Southside as part of Big in Belgium, 8 August 2023

Agit-Cirk: Insomniac’s Fable was seen at Summerhall as part of Start to Finnish, 10 August

Tortoise in a Nutshell: Concerned Others was seen at Summerhall as part of Made in Scotland, 9 August 2023

Cora Bissett: What Girls Are Made Of was seen at Assembly Rooms as part of the Made in Scotland programme, 10 August 2023

Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips: Night Soles, produced by Aurora Nova, was seen at Assembly Roxy, 7 August 2023

Our Bodies, Our Selves – Ed Fringe 2023

Three body positive shows seen at Summerhall – High Steaks, A Spectacle of Herself, and Weathervanes

Sitting on a table in, appropriately enough, the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Eloina Haines slowly removes the mirror placed in front of her vulva and opens her legs wide to reveal her labia. We are well into her show High Steaks, and the moment of reveal comes after much comic play with the audience that starts with her dashing into the space wearing an accordion as a dress, which is removed to reveal a green merkin made of parsley, with a pair of beef steaks dangling down either side. Surely the weirdest striptease ever seen… 

Eloina is a confident performer, and a rapport with the audience is established, Ed Fringe comedy style, right from the start. The wonkily-played accordion is a great ice-breaker. How are we? she asks. Then, What do we call our bits down there? Specifically, our labia. There are a few answers from the audience, then the recorded text kicks in: Fanny flaps, meat curtains, kebabs…  The very many meat references are why Eloina has the pair of prime steaks on board – dangled from her body, then removed, butchered, and (eventually) fried and served with chopped parsley. Her mum is on hand to help and support with the cooking – the two in conversation throughout.

High Steaks is a show about labia, labia-shaming, cosmetic surgery – and about celebrating what you’ve got, in all its unique beauty. Eloina has interviewed people far and wide, to gather up views on female genitalia from those who own them – those happy with their lot, and those with body dysmorphia. As we’d entered the space, we’d noticed the ‘vulva owners to the front’ signs – so the first two rows are taken up by women. Or by vulva owners, I should say. This is a trans positive show, and there is no assumption made that all women have vulvas and that no men do – the recorded verbatim soundbites include accounts by trans men describing their contentment with their vulvas. We learn also that testosterone makes the clitoris swell and grow so that it becomes like a mini-penis – no need for surgery! 

Talking of surgery, there is a lot of talk – both recorded and live from Eloina – about labiaplasty, the surgical procedure to reduce the size of, or to even up the size of, the labia – which are usually asymmetrical, this is completely normal. A procedure that the 10-year-old Eloina, despite coming from a liberal family with plenty of positive female role models, felt convinced she needed. A procedure that many young women feel they need, shamed by friends or by airbrushed images generated by the porn industry, believing something is wrong with their genitals. But this is no political diatribe – Eloina states her support of everyone’s right to choose any procedure that they feel they need; but she just wants to present the facts, so that people make informed choices. And here are the facts. There are two reasons for labiaplasty, medical and cosmetic – and there are more procedures done for cosmetic reasons than for medical reasons. Young women often don’t appreciate the range of ‘normality’ for shape and size of labia – as with earlobes, or any other body part. So Eloina is here to educate – to ‘raise a middle finger to butchering your body for the aesthetics of another’.

High Steaks is a joyful and celebratory show, with the balance held beautifully between the comedy, the creation of strong visual imagery (a moment where she sits cross-legged weaving her arms through the air makes me think of the Hindu goddess Durga), and a sober sharing of personal experiences and medical facts. In her lovingly-held command of the space, direct address to audience, and use of humour to explore issues around sexuality and body image, Eloina reminds me strongly of the legendary sex-positive performance artist Annie Sprinkle. And that can only be a good thing! Highly recommended for vulva-owners and everybody else.

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself. Photo Holly Revell

Also presenting autobiographical revelations in a body positive mode comes Laura Murphy with A Spectacle of Herself, seen in Summerhall’s Main Hall. In this case the spoken-word (and onscreen text) personal revelations are mixed with musings on space travel in general and Elon Musk’s derring-do’s in particular; and with the philosophy of ethnobotanist and mystic Terence McKenna. There are wise and wonderful words a-plenty, a number of lovely physical/visual vignettes set to great tunes, and some mighty fine aerial rope work. 

To start, we get McKenna’s words voiced by a whacky looking onscreen clown, looming larger than life over us. Imagine, says Terence through the medium of Laura-the-clown: there we are, a foetus in the womb, swimming freely, all our needs met. Then, the walls close in and we are squeezed out. ‘Our medium is meat’ says the voice; and, ‘matter is not lacking in magic, matter is magic’. Thus the notion is set up that our bodies are not some sort of incidental vehicle for our minds and spirits – we are physical, earthed, meaty beings. And how we feel about our bodies and choose to present our bodies is crucial to our existence.

A Spectacle of Herself is a confessional-autobiographical piece, but it is more – an exploration of gender identity and sexuality, of neurodivergence and vulnerability, worked through in a succession of scenes that delight, challenge and amuse in equal measure. There’s a ‘what side of the bed are you lying on?’ listing of likes and dislikes – on the plus side, strap-ons; on the minus side, deodorised vaginas that don’t smell like vaginas, to pick a couple of random examples. There’s a fabulous aerial rope section inspired by that old Diet Coke ad, where a room full of female office-workers swoon at the sight of a male window cleaner downing a can of Coke, whilst the Etta James’ classic ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ belts out. Laura wanted to be that guy, she tells us, and, topless with a white cloth tucked into her jeans pocket, she climbs her rope and commands the room. Reader, I swooned. There’s a fabulously surreal scene set to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, where Laura puts a cardboard box on her head and repeatedly bonks the mic on the stand with her head, slowly descending down to the floor. Pure Dada. And the Macarena is danced to the tune of ‘Twenty Twenty Vision’ – which is great, a bit like that game they play on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue where they do the lyrics of one song to the tune of another. Dissonance a-go-go.

There is an ongoing motif of the space race and its inevitable link to male energy and ambition. Cue rockets soaring into the ether, and Laura in a white spacesuit in a fabulously slo-mo rope routine, seemingly defying gravity. There is lip-synching to Elon Musk’s voicing of his SpaceX plans – this done whilst crossing the stage on a hoverboard, pumping a balloon placed between her legs that grows into an enormous carnivalesque phallus.    

And to note that there is an absent character onstage – Laura’s partner Ruby, who is referred to constantly with love and appreciation – whether it’s walking their dog together, watching reality TV, holding the space for her when she has panic attacks, or having sex.

A Spectacle of Herself is constructed with care, skilfully directed by Ursula Martinez, and performed with panache by Laura Murphy. Yes, the personal is political; and yes, space is the final frontier. It just depends what sort of space we are talking about…   A gorgeous show, bursting with magical words, images, and actions. Matter is indeed magic. 

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself. Photo Holly Revell

Jian Yi’s Weathervanes describes itself as ‘a rethinking of the beautiful and what is holy’. Drawing on classical depictions of the nude, it re-stages those images as living sculptures – flesh rather than marble – ‘centering queer people of colour’. 

During the daytime, the piece is an installation, featuring light projections and multimedia FX (by Cryptic artist Heather Lander); material constructions (stone, mirrors, branches, leaves, water features) by sculptor/set designer Furmaan Ahmed; and a video work at the entrance depicting naked bodies moving with a meditative slowness, standing on balconies overlooking urban streets. At night, for two shows per evening, the space becomes activated by the addition of four performers – three naked living statues set on plinths, moving with a gentle, minimal precision; and a musician, who is sitting fully-dressed on the floor in a far room, surrounded by a range of different-sized Tibetan bowls and a mixer, creating a very satisying and enriching soundscape. (But perhaps he ought to be naked, too, muses my companion.)

The claims (on the accompanying info sheets) that the piece forms ‘an architecture of queer futurity’ amongst other musings may well be the case – but I feel everyone will forge their own responses to witnessing the piece, and having interpretations proposed seems to lessen it. Yes, it does prompt thoughts about ancestry and our relationship to nature. No, it doesn’t seem to speak to me about the afterlife. Weathervanes does, though, spark thoughts on the inter-connectedness of different forms of holistic movement practice. I find myself thinking about Etienne Decroux’s endeavour to establish corporeal mime as a costume-free practice, so that the focus is on the human form moving in the space. I think fondly of the meditative dance-theatre practices of Indonesian ‘free movement guru’ Prapto; and I think of the Butoh tradition, where the impulse for movement comes from within.

But ultimately, Weathervanes is meditative and beautiful, lovely images set in a resonant soundscape – and that’s quite enough for me.

Jian Yi: Weathervanes

Featured image (top of page): Eloina Haines: High Steaks

Eloina Haines: High Steaks was seen at Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre, 9 August 2023.

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself was seen in Summerhall Main Hall, 9 August 2023.

Journey to the East Productions/ Jian Yi: Weathervanes was seen 10 August 2023 at Summerhall Basement Galleries.

All shows presented as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023.