Saturday, 31 July 2021

The magic of street theatre (now I know)

IT’S always gratifying come July to hook up with Henley Festival-goers who proudly wear the badge — metaphorically — of

IT’S always gratifying come July to hook up with Henley Festival-goers who proudly wear the badge — metaphorically — of having attended every festival.

I don’t quite know what their total number is but I reckon it is still in three figures. If you are one of that number, we salute you!

What I like to hear when speaking to these diehards is that the things they have always loved about the festival are still there: the range of shows, the atmosphere, the life and colour…. and, of course, the Roving Company of Eccentrica.

When I first took over the role of artistic director, I was asked how much I knew about the whole roving, street theatre phenomenon. The answer was not a lot. You don’t tend to come across that sort of thing in real life!

It may be a fabulous way of animating an outdoor space but where do you learn about the whole phenomenon? Where do you find the acts?

I set myself the challenge of finding out and, to be honest, it has been most of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of a job that is, frankly, very rewarding and enjoyable.

My first port of call was the group that had already made its mark at previous Henley Festivals, the Natural Theatre Company, then and now as good as anyone in the field.

They’re the group that produced the famous alien Coneheads who shuffle around in a group wearing alien masks, photographing everybody and everything with old Brownie cameras and being delighted and chuffed by whatever they see and find.

They’re the group who walk around in “nude suits”, knitted genitals and all, and they’re the group…. well, you name it, and they will have thought of something twice as absurd.

Spool forward a number of years and we came up with the notion of The Roving Company of Eccentrica — the name that has now been in use for a good few years at the festival.

By this stage I had travelled high and low at home and abroad in the hunt for the absolute best in street theatre.

Now I like to think that what was always one of the hidden joys of the festival has become an irreplaceable jewel.

These acts interact brazenly with our audiences and our audiences seem to lap it up. It’s great to be made fun of by a 10ft Scottish piper with an incontinent dog, or by a tearaway grannie on a motorised shopping basket, or to have one’s choice of dress for the night inspected at close range by a pack of tame gorillas…. I could go on.

Anyway, the point is that surprise has to be one of the key attractions of any Henley Festival and this aspect is truly safe for the coming year in the hands of a fabulous group of artists who will be with us for the week.

Yes, the grannies will be there this year, but my spot for this year is a French trio for whom the word “madcap” might as well have been invented — Les Goulus.

Les Goulus will be bringing us their Horsemen of the Apocalypse and, believe me, they are about as good as it gets.

And, ladies, beware if they decide to try out another of their acts, Les Cupidons…. I’ll say no more for the moment.

By the way, I had a dream come true last September when, for a day, I became a member of the National Theatre Company. The good people of Chelmsford won’t have known but one of the Coneheads at the Essex “Street Diversions” day was none other than yours truly seeing what it was all about, literally from inside. Magic!

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