Kendal Mint Fest – Hippodrome Plus Youth Ambassadors Trip

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After yet another successful Summer in Southside, things have begun to wind down at the Birmingham Hippodrome before the Autumn-Winter season kicks off next week with CATS. But for the Hippodrome Plus team, there’s no rest yet, since planning for next year’s festival has already begun!

On Saturday 30th August, four of the Hippodrome Youth Ambassadors, along with Hippodrome Plus Creative Programmes Administrator Zara Harris, travelled up to Cumbria to catch some shows at the Lakes Alive Kendal Mint Fest. Fun and games ensued, but with a purpose: our mission, which we chose to accept, was to scout for talent and exciting show concepts to bring to Summer in Southside 2015.

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First things first, we headed over to the Westmorland shopping centre for a taste of the strangest meal you’ve never seen. Ola Szostak and Willemijn Schellekens’s Table of Thoughts was a strange and startling audio-visual installation, inviting participants to listen in to the private thoughts of a group of dinner party guests. One pair of headphones for each empty chair was fixed to a long dining table, upon which food and crockery had been transformed into unnerving manifestations of the themes and images explored in the recordings. What each listener heard ranged from the childlike to the raunchy, and worked best with a full table, when no one could tell what anyone else was hearing. Participants thus became a part of the “show”, embodying the party guests as they observed each others’ reactions. Sadly, this didn’t happen nearly often enough, since the piece was tucked away in a disused shop that was quite difficult to find if you didn’t already know your way around the town.

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Out on the streets, meanwhile, Peut-Etre Theatre and Dante or Die adapted the surreal writings of Russian author Daniil Kharms with music and madness in their colourful, kid-friendly show Clunk. Aimed primarily at under-5s, it did a great job of engaging the little ones, who were all really excited and made to feel part of the performance. It was a pretty big hit with the grown-ups, too, mind!

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In perhaps the most powerful and moving show of the weekend, surrealist comedy duo Desperate Men explored the absurdity of war and its impact on art, culture and society in Slapstick and Slaughter. Ideas and images crashed and collided with an exuberant, anarchic playfulness half-masking its dark and disturbing themes, as when the classic trust-building exercise of falling backwards onto a partner evolved into a vision of a soldier carrying a dead comrade, a set-up at once funny and desperately sad.

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Roaming the streets amid fixed productions were a series of mobile shows, including Encore’s Sheep, a frolicking flock led around by a singing shepherdess and her faithful sheepdog, and Talking Birds’ The Q, a group of orange-clad representatives from “The Q Corporation” attempting to restore order to the town by awarding prizes to quality queuers and offering Extreme Queuing demonstrations.

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Outside the library, audiences were transported from the old English streets of Kendal to the vibrant, colourful carnivals of Brazil and New Orleans through the lively music of BLAST! Furness, a huge, 20-piece community band whose diverse players were kitted out in crazy hats and striking, red and black attire. Their sound was irresistible – by the end of the performance, even the band themselves were dancing down the road!

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As day wore on into dusk, the amazing Les Krilati performed spectacular feats in their circus cabaret extravaganza, Little Pleasures. Seeking “to snub contemporary society”, the show was set up outside The Factory, Kendal’s newest arts venue, and saw performers climb up into the clouds on ropes, poles and swings, seeming to search for escape and freedom in the sky above them. Gleefully childish and simple yet with a cheeky grown-up edge, this show enthralled and astonished audiences of all ages.

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One of the few productions to follow a clear narrative, Ramshackalicious’s Grime told the story of a dysfunctional family in the unusual setting of a mobile burger bar. Described as “a modern soap opera that aims to push the boundaries of possibility”, the show seemed to take as its theme our taste for the macabre, both in the modern world and throughout entertainment history. Its initially gritty vibe quickly gave way to slapstick comedy and exaggerated goriness, the abusive patriarch morphing into an overblown monster of Penny Dreadful proportions. Grime repeatedly subverts its audience’s expectations, mixing elements of Mr Punch and Sweeney Todd with realistic menace. Both frightening and funny, it’s a fascinating acknowledgement of how violence has always been bound up in the history of British theatre and culture.

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From one violent feast to another, Tetes de Mules’ Parasite Circus saw viewers mercilessly showered with the blood of its “artists”, a series of puppets torn and exploded into pieces before their very eyes. A pair of grim, grimey hosts presented a miniature, mobile circus from their battered caravan, with a strong man, a dancer and an acrobat all brought before the audience and promptly murdered for its entertainment. Parasite Circus is a hilarious splatter-fest with a little of Grime’s influences combined with a few more from the films: from Hammer Horror’s theatricality to the outlandish blood baths of Tarantino movies. Though it took place after hours, squeals of delight were soon ringing out from kids and adults alike – after all, there’s nothing for bringing the family together like a bit of comedy slaughter!

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To end the evening, Gentleman Juggler Mat Ricardo took over the Brewery Arts Centre’s Mint Room for a cabaret night packed with danger, dexterity and dapper elegance. Having sold out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and in London’s West End, Ricardo wowed the Kendal audience with a spectacular array of tricks and stunts, juggling everything from hats to bowling balls, poker cues to electric knives.

The following day, after listening to a series of exciting-sounding pitches in Town Hall, we headed over to the Brewery’s Mint Garden to relax to the cool, uplifting sounds of Polly and the Billet Doux, an energetic four-piece blending elements of soul, pop, folk and blues styles.

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Even with just a few of these acts, it looks like there’ll be plenty to look forward to at next year’s Summer in Southside! Hope to see you there!

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