Follow My Leader

Out There Festival leads the way with a fabulously rich programme of street theatre, circus and cabaret, presented in the streets, parks, beaches, and housing estates of Great Yarmouth 

It’s Saturday night, the weekend before the autumn equinox, and there’s a bit of a chill in the air here in St George’s Park, Great Yarmouth. It’s 9pm, and we are awaiting the start of Silence!, the big processional show by French street arts company Les Commandos Percu, which is one of the highlights of this year’s Out There International Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus programme.

And yes, here they come. A bunch of wild-looking men, some sort of mutant cross between steampunks and cyborgs, banging drums, shouting. With them, a team of pyrotechnicians, waving flares, throwing out firecrackers. So, off we go, past the park, along the street, and down to the seafront, the crowd gathering in size as we go. We head onto the main drag, neon lights flashing out the arcade names: Circus Circus, Gold Rush, Silver Slipper, Golden Nugget. The people streaming by are turned into shadow theatre silhouettes by those ultra-bright lights. The crowd is filling the wide avenue now – I fall behind and can no longer see Les Commandos, but I can hear them. By the time we get to the beach, people are lined up six-deep along the promenade. Ah, but there’s nothing to stop us getting on to the beach! I move along to the right, almost to the Big Wheel, and make my way onto the sand, where there’s a lot more space and a good view of the group, who have now climbed up onto their set, a fabulous rocky mountain that moves through a rainbow of colours, an ice-blue glacier one minute and a red-hot volcano the next, the indigo night sky and the shimmering sea behind them adding to the visual picture. Sound and vision work in tandem: as the musicians hammer out their thunderous beats, the ‘rock’ erupts in enormous bursts of fire and light. The music is loud – very loud – a hellfire hybrid of all sorts of rhythms, one minute sounding like a sci-fi samba troupe, the next closer to post-punk experimenters Test Department. As it all comes to a monumental climax, and the artists take their bow, the crowd erupts, clapping and cheering – delighted to have the big Saturday night spectacle back on the menu for Out There Festival. 

Les Cammandos Percu: Silence! Photo David Street

What very few here in this crowd know is that it was a close call as to whether it would happen – with the festival taking place within the official mourning period for Queen Elizabeth, there was a week of behind-the scenes negotiating to ensure that the programme, including the Saturday night parade, would go ahead. The festival directors stood their ground, and after much negotiation, it all happened – unlike very many other outdoor arts events across the country that got pulled. It is, to my mind, strange that anyone should feel it is somehow ‘disrespectful’ to make art during a mourning period, but we live in strange times. However, in order to appease the powers-that-be, the Festival made a number of concessions to the programme. Les Commandos Percu’s Silence! incorporates a minute’s silence, and is followed by the national anthem. And the festival’s Sunday programme finishes a couple of hours earlier than planned (with an earlier start so nothing is cut) in order to adhere to guidance on national mourning on the eve of the Queen’s funeral. 

The Friday evening Party in the Park ends up being transferred indoors to The Drill House – but that’s more about the inclement weather than the Queen.  So we get to stay inside, in the warm, as the wind howls and the rain falls – entertained by a line-up that includes the cheery and highly talented double act Jones & Barnard, whose years of experience as physical comedians and cabaret performers is in strong evidence in their hilarious take on magic and escapology; and the fabulous Department of Gruff, who, resplendent in some very lovely latex whole-head dog masks treat us to their versions of classics such as Puppy Love, How Much is that Doggie in the Window?, and (my favourite) The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. 

Sarah Munro: Miss O’Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama

Saturday morning – and although it isn’t that warm, at least it’s dry. So, wrapped up and clad in sturdy boots, off I head into the streets and parks of Yarmouth. Like other iterations of Out There Festival that I’ve witnessed, the 2022 programme proves to be a good mix of artforms, embracing traditional street theatre, experimental performance and installation, music, dance, and circus. Oh, and this year we also had parkour – more on that anon.

I start off with Miss O’Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama, in which Sarah Munro of the late lamented Insect Circus, in her first solo venture, presents an alternative to the regular fairground coconut shy. Miss O’Genie’s ‘damnable dolls’ turn out to be a set of famous misogynists, or archetypal misogynist figures, who we are invited to batter with fake fruit. So, you can have a go at knocking Boris Johnson or the Pope off his pedestal. Or perhaps you’d prefer to down Putin from his horse, pummel Mr Punch, or get your revenge on a gynaecologist.

As a proud former punk, I take great delight in smashing down a hippy with a nice chunky avocado. Of course, the children of Great Yarmouth join in keenly (groups of teenagers too, who are delighted that it’s free to play and that winners get sweeties), and parents are easily coerced to have a go. The show is new, but has its roots in an installation done by Sarah Munro for Vanessa Toulmin’s The Wonder Show, a contemporary reworking of classic circus sideshow acts. It works very well in this new context, and is a great addition to the outdoor arts circuit. Fun for all the family – and proof that political performance doesn’t have to be po-faced to make a point.

The Dazzling Dollirama is one of a number of installation pieces presented at this year’s Out There Festival – and interestingly enough, challenging misogyny seems to be a key theme. Scottish artist Eilidh Reilly’s Alright Doll takes the form of a number of signs hung from trees (‘Educate Your Sons’ says one, which I am drawn to as a mother of three sons!) and a soundtrack of verbatim texts recorded from interviews with women, debunking the notion of the ‘unlucky’ woman victim of violence, and challenging mainstream portrayals of street harassment. At various points in the day, Eilidh Reilly invites passing women to sit down with a cup of tea and contribute soundbites to the work. Alright Doll was supported by Surge (Scotland) as part of the Four Nations programme for emerging artists, which offered funding to six artists to create work that has toured to Wales, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland. It’s good to see multi-media installation included in the programme – it might not have as immediate an appeal as the classic street theatre or circus show, but I think audiences appreciate the variety offered at Out There.

And talking of variety, an odd-bod addition to the programme is Japanese musician ICHI with his One Man Band, in which he sets up on the corner of a busy shopping road and plays a fabulous array of unusual and homemade instruments, from wonky keyboards to mellotrons and a Kalilaphone (a kind of whistling calliope, I think this might be) via bells and balloons. It is all totally bats and absolutely brilliant.

Spitz & Co: Blue Hawaii

On to the more regular festival shows now. Flying the flag for classic street theatre come Spitz & Co, previously seen at Out There Festival 2019 with the fabulous Les Gloriables, which referenced and deconstructed Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The company’s latest work, Blue Hawaii, is also a two-hander. The subject this time is Elvis Presley – or rather, it merges the stories of Elvis and an Elvis impersonator who is remaking the film Blue Hawaii, played here by (yes!) a well-known Elvis impersonator, Joe Reeve. And I’ll say here that my walk home at 10pm the previous evening taught me that Elvis is alive and well and living in Yarmouth – almost every pub I passed was either playing Elvis tunes or had an Elvis impersonator performing live. So naturally, this show goes down very well with the local crowd. Joe Reeve as Elvis/the Elvis impersonator sings brilliantly and works very well with Spitz mainstay Suzie Donkin, whose alter-ego Josephine Cunningham plays everyone else – tour manager, girlfriend, fan or whatever (game-playing within game-playing here). As with Les Gloriables, there’s a great deal of fourth-wall breaking and stepping in and out of the action, emphasising the fact that a show is being created live in front of our very eyes, in a public space. Costumes (Hawaiian shirts, glittery jumpsuits) are tugged on and off, in full view or behind deliberately inadequate screens that hide nothing. Audience members are drawn in to the action – blow-up dolphins are crowd-surfed, people are serenaded, and there’s a very lovely scene featuring a pre-schoolers’ air-guitar contest that morphs into choosing a band to back Elvis. We always feel that we are in safe hands, and Suzie AKA Josephine in particular has an enviable ability to respond in the moment to whatever is happening in the space, with true street theatre sassiness and know-how.

Adrenalism: Hey Idiots, Text Me Your Climate Change Solutions. Photo Katherine Mager

Also a two-hander, and also demonstrating an admirable ability to hold a space, communicate with an audience, and think on their feet come Adrenalism – a young company who are already performing with a great deal of street theatre noose. Hey Idiots, Text Me Your Climate Change Solutions features a pair of middle-management PR guys called Warren and Stew, who (despite working for a fossil fuel multinational), are tasked with drawing us into a collective bout of blue-sky thinking to solve the climate change crisis. Yep, just like that! Easy peasy! We can do it, we have scientists! We first meet our two stooges on the street, hoisting up their ‘Text Me’ placard, clambering up onto dustbins to proclaim their intents, tripping over street furniture, and herding people into the performance area. Once they’ve rounded up an audience, we’re into an increasingly ridiculous mock-conference, with a classic clown ‘master and servant’ set-up as bossy Warren belittles the poor (Lamb) Stew and cajoles him into a ludicrous blow-up world costume, whilst also scrolling through the texts coming in on his outdated Nokia that can’t read the emojis. In a world awash with ‘climate change’ shows, it is great to see one that so cleverly satirises the notion of quick-fix and painless solutions – particularly if they are being touted by the very people who’ve caused the problem in the first place. A wonderfully refreshing piece of street theatre – if we’re in the end days for human life on this planet, at least, with Adrenalism, we’ll go down laughing. 

Another Out There show tackling the climate crisis, Foolish Doom, is the brainchild of Peter Sweet and Leonie Baker, working under the name Tiny Colossus. They play the wizard Burnhart (a kind of Gandalf/Merlin/Dumbledore hybrid) and his loyal creature Pippa (a green-skinned imp) who have been magically transported here to save our world. After a strong start, riffing on the power of magic and magicians, we move into a rather too polemical explanation of where we are at with the climate crisis and potential solutions, but then the script takes a turn for the better again with the realisation that there are, in fact, no magic solutions. It is a little too slow, and labours its points too heavily at times, but this is off-set by great costumes and a fabulous set (a wonderfully wonky wagon pulled through the streets to the performance site, where they are nicely framed by trees and bushes); some lovely live musical moments using keyboards and a great range of unusual percussion instruments; and some truly fabulous puppetry, as a copper coffee pot and dish become numerous characters met along the way by Burnhart and Pippa. It could certainly benefit from a bit of cutting and tweaking and mulching down, but on balance, the positive aspects of the piece – the strong visual imagery and physical presence, the musicality, the rapport with the audience – outweigh the down points.

Jolie Vyann: Timeless. Photo James Bass

Created under the auspices of the Without Walls consortium, and developed with the support of Out There Arts, Joli Yvann’s Timeless also tackles the big question of our day – the survival of our civilisation when the human race seems hell-bent on self-destruction. This time, in a piece using dance and acrobatics played out on a big structure – a giant egg-timer in which the four performers run like hamsters within, or clamber or dangle on the outside, exploring notions of ‘time, irreversibility and climate change’. Inevitably, the structure does eventually become an hourglass, a conduit for the sands of time trickling through. There is no going back! It is a word-free physical piece for the most part, although it incorporates spoken word in the form of recorded speeches by David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg integrated into the soundscape. The superb physical skills of the company are evident as they perform gasp-worthy moves on and round the revolving structure. But to be completely honest, I prefer the soft and fluid floorwork and acrobalance (the core of the company’s work) to those scenes on the big spinning contraption, which is a bit of a one-trick pony. Once we’ve seen people whizzing around inside it and hanging on the outside of it screaming whilst the winds howl (soundtrack winds, although the piece had to be transferred from the seafront to a town-centre plaza because of the real wind!), the novelty wears off a bit. I also find myself thinking whilst I watch that there is an irony to a show about environmental issues being so strongly tied to this cumbersome piece of kit that is subject to technical breakdowns, and no doubt takes a lot of energy to move around the country. But there is no denying the abilities of the four performers, the strength of the choreography, and the noble intentions of their vision for this piece.

Tripotes La Compagnie: Encore Une Fois. Photo Peter Morgan

Elsewhere in the festival there is circus a-plenty. Belgium’s Tripotes La Compagnie bring us Encore Une Fois, a three-person show ‘seesawing between reckless danger and perilous fragility’. The ‘reckless danger’ element is some truly stupendous teeterboard work. The ‘perilous fragility’ plays out in jokey hand-to-hand and acro sequences which embrace a healthy dose of physical clowning as the three performers push, pull and tease each other. The show is performed on a high stage, rather than at ground level with the audience up close, which means that the very slow build-up (with no soundtrack) gets a bit lost. I see the show twice and it is only on second viewing that I appreciate that very slow beginning, which involves much small-talk, and small-scale interaction with the audience, most of which I lost first time round, thinking something had gone wrong with the soundtrack!

The 2021 Out There Festival programme put the emphasis on British outdoor arts (for obvious reasons), and that worked very well. But it is great to see so many overseas companies back on the bill for 2022. Planned for both 2020 and 2021, and thwarted two years in a row, Argentina’s ManoAmano are finally back here at the Festival with the UK premiere of Kinematos, a piece about a desire to fly that is full of charm and humour, all hung (literally) around a core of fabulous Chinese pole work and daredevil climbing and balancing. There is a delightful rapport between the two performers (who are a couple in real life – but that doesn’t always automatically transfer to stage complicity!), with plenty of clowning moments adding zest to the pole work and acrobatic routines. Sassy costumes add to the spectacle, and there’s a  fantastic soundtrack – morphing from a Spanish version of King of the Road to a perky Charleston (danced to very skilfully, I was pleased to see), and then on to a Piazzolla tango that provides the impetus for a gorgeous pole double-act. A complete and satisfying show that takes the audience by storm – bravo!

ManoAmano: Kinematos. Photo James Bass

Italian clown and circus performer Margherita Mischitelli’s Amore Pony is a journey into the feminine which mixes balancing, Cyr wheel, clowning, and audience interaction – with, as seen on this occasion, varying degrees of success. It is all a little rocky, although to give her the benefit of the doubt, she has many elements conspiring against her. For a start, her pitch on the seafront is not ideal as the sea wind clearly interferes with her routines: a high-heel clad bottle-walk that should be one of the highlights of the show has to be aborted as she loses balance and falls off in the wind. Of course when the Festival programmed this and other work onto the seafront, they weren’t to know the weather would turn far more autumnal than it has been in previous years in mid-September. But this isn’t actually the main problem – audiences are very forgiving, and we could see she was struggling with the bottle-walk so gave her a big round of applause regardless. The key issue is her hesitancy in engaging fully with the audience due to language difficulties. Unlike ManoAmano, who use an engaging mix of English, Spanish and gobbledygook, Mischitelli insists on sticking to a faltering English, rather than riffing and improvising in her native Italian or a mix of languages, and thus comes across as lacking in confidence – for example, as she tries to get a team of men into colour-coded tabards in order to join her in a processional dance routine, which becomes a painfully slow process marred by odd pauses. I would have dearly loved to see her perform in Italian, as she is (I’m sure) a talented circus artist with some good ideas; this obscured by the problems of communication, site and weather.

Still with the hybrid circus, and also thwarted somewhat by the weather: Daisy Black’s Feral is an odd one – a mix of live and filmed aerial circus/dance and recorded spoken word text, exploring the notion of rewilding and working with the cycle of nature as we move through the year, from spring to summer to autumn to winter. The live performance section is at the beginning, and pretty short. I was assuming there would be a return to live action at the end, but no. The film is really beautiful, with words that play poetically with rhythm and repetition, and moving images that use a gorgeous palette of earth colours and tones to express mood in a painterly fashion; the solo performer seen engaging with the natural environment, hanging from trees (on silks or a Lyra hoop), walking barefoot through leaves, handling stones. But it is long, and difficult to watch at night in a cold park. Perhaps if the weather had been warmer, more of the audience would have stayed to the end, but as it was, many left. 

Farm Yard Circus. Photo James Bass

Also a circus show dealing with the natural world, albeit in a completely different way, is the homegrown Farm Yard Circus – presented by a company with the same name, an eight-strong ensemble (six acrobats, two musicians) who create a joyous melange of tumbling, juggling, and balancing. It’s a delight to watch the little girls in the audience gazing adoringly at the big girls in the show who, dressed in dungaree-shorts with hair pulled into rough bunches, stand shoulder-to-shoulder (literally) with the boys in the troupe, morphing from base to flyer, carrying and throwing with gusto. And the boys are pretty good, too! What is new and fresh and a great advert for the future of UK circus is the size of the ensemble, the range of skills, and the way this lot work together, with the six physical performers fighting fit and full of beans, the two musicians ably employing a range of instruments from banjo to drums and bells, the acrobats augmenting the music with turns on the accordion or percussion. A couple of moments feel a little derivative – some apple juggling sat on a row of chairs that is perhaps a nod to Gandini’s Smashed; some wheelbarrow-wielding and tractor tyre balancing that is a reminder of Cirque Alfonse’s Animal. But that’s a jaded old reviewer talking – when you’ve seen a lot, you’ll inevitably see echoes of other work in young companies. To the excited audiences of Great Yarmouth this is irrelevant – they certainly know a great street show when they see it and respond accordingly, showing their appreciation loudly and with great gusto.

Be Flat: Follow Me: Photo Marcin Rodwell

Back to the overseas companies: Belgian company Be Flat have a new take on circus, the duo of acrobats combining their skills in tumbling and balancing with a breathtaking demonstration of parkour in an aptly-named show called Follow Me, reworked for each new environment that the company present the work – in this case, in and around the Malakoff estate in Yarmouth, where the company were embedded for the week before the Festival, working with local residents on creating a route through the estate.

We start in an outdoor urban courtyard, a rather bleak asphalted space, fenced in by garages and brick walls bearing signs that say No Ball Games. In the centre of the courtyard are a pile of lightweight collapsible chairs – the type that people carry with them on hikes or to outdoor concerts. And yes, after some warm-up play on and round the chair-mountain, we are all issued with one, and whistled at with smiles of encouragement. So off we go – following our two performers, who take it in turns to lead the group whilst entertaining us by scrabbling up and over walls and railings, through gardens, and up and down trees. As we turn past the remains of the old city walls, the ante is upped as the two performers scale heights, walk along spiked railings with a sheer drop below, and create acrobalance poses in the most unlikely of places – at the top of an archway, say, or halfway up a wall like a pair of spidermen. 

But what of those chairs? We are instructed to wear them like little metal skirts, then form a processional line to dance along the street holding on to the person in front, each of two lines led off by one of the performers. Or we are wordlessly herded along a road and set up as two lines sitting in traverse, so that the two acrobats can take turns cartwheeling and flipping along between us; this turning into a lovely strip-the-willow type dance as we pair up and move along the soul train, waving our chairs in the air, to the applause of the rest of the group.

At another point in the show, we sit facing a block of flats and watch astonished as our fearless duo climb up walls and walk along window ledges, stopping to say a quick hello to a man and his dog who are out on their balcony; fetching a small ladder so they can get right up to roof level. That ladder takes on another role in a later scene, when it surprisingly becomes a flute, accompanying a Stomp-like percussive scene as poles, railings and walls get played. In the final scene, there’s a surprise third performer discovered, playing drums above a flat-roofed garage with a graffiti’d door. 

Such a wonderful show! The phenomenal physical skills, the use of site, the humour,  the tender care of the audience. It is especially good to see the groups of teenagers from Yarmouth really owning the show – and if they happened to come from the estate where it is staged, and have thus witnessed the creation process over the past week, proudly explaining key moments to their mates (‘Oh yeah, when they did this the other day there was a lady behind those curtains looking really surprised!’). In a weekend full of strong outdoor arts work, Follow Me is for me the very best of the fest. It’s the final show that I see in the streets on Sunday afternoon.

The African Choir of Norwich at The Drill House. Photo Marcin Rodwell

Follow Me sees the end of the outdoor programme, which finishes at 4pm to honour the needs of those who wish to mourn on the eve of the Queen’s funeral, or to attend a local vigil – but the fun isn’t done as we move indoors to The Drill House for the finale. The Festival goes out with a bang as we are treated to an indoor version of Chris Lynam’s anarchic clown show, The Beast of Theatre – in which he bares his bottom to a family audience, sets fire to the stage, and dresses a man from the audience in a tutu before smashing up his watch with a hammer. Good to see that age hasn’t mellowed him – the day Chris Lynam plays it safe is the day we know that it’s all over. 

As a gentle come-down, we have a lovely set from the African Choir of Norfolk, who give us a pan-African selection of tunes, taking us from Morocco in the north of the continent to South Africa, and plenty inbetween. The night ends with Festival Lounge DJ sets from El Diablo Rojo and Bmore McVowty, with poetry projections from Colossal Youth. Backstage, artists gather for a final meal together, and much Portuguese wine is drunk…

So, that’s it – another year done. It has clearly been a challenging one for the Festival’s directors and producers – just when you think everything’s getting back to normal, post pandemic, there’s the unsettling weather and a dying monarch to contend with. As artistic director Joe Mackintosh says at the opening of this year’s proceedings: ‘We’re now in a world that has change as its constant.’

Yet within the continuing turmoil, Out There Festival is proving to be, in Joe’s words again, ‘a small point of solidity’. We don’t know what next year will bring, but I’m betting that whatever it is, Joe Mackintosh, his co-director Veronica Stephens, and their fabulous production team will rise above it all and bring us another fantastic experience on the streets of Yarmouth.

Out There Festival 2022. Photo Peter Morgan

Featured image (top of page}: Be Flat: Follow Me sited on the Malakoff Estate Great Yarmouth for Out There Festival 2022. Photo Katherne Mager.

Out There Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus took place 16–18 September 2022. 

Out There Festival, which recently presented its 14th edition, 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 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. See 

Out There Arts, the producers of the Out There Festival, and Great Yarmouth Borough Council are presenting Fire on the Water – Beach Edition 22–29 October 2022,  sponsored by Visit Great Yarmouth, CPP – Freshly Greated and Interreg Experience. This year’s edition will take place on the golden sands of Great Yarmouth for a dynamic and dramatic outdoor experience featuring dance and acrobatic performances, light installations and night-time fire shows. For further details on this and other year-round activities see see

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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.