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Latitude raises the temperature

Latitude 2013 was a scorcher (in more ways than one), offering a rich programme of theatre and no shortage of hidden gems, says our reviewer Vicky Ellis

© Markheybo

You can never predict where you'll end up at a festival after hours - but watching a woman strip, pop eggs out of an unmentionable part of her body and coat herself in ketchup and feathers wasn't how I expected to round off Saturday night.

My day at Latitude had started a little tamer. A slice of cultural mayhem in Suffolk's pretty Henham Park and now in its eighth year, the festival is known for a stellar music line-up (the likes of Grace Jones have headlined) but also firmly for its array of tents offering poetry, cabaret, comedy, literature (which covers everything from book readings to erotic musings) and, of course, theatre.

Hard to believe after the scorching week, Saturday morning dawned muggy. Fiercely wishing I'd shrugged off Friday work commitments, there was a temptation to, well, devour lots of things in small chunks, a Saturday smorgasbord.

What really stood out from this theatrical patchwork - and fitting the weekend's theme 'What Defines Me?' superbly, was Things I Forgot I Remembered by exuberant Welsh actor Hugh Hughes, presented by Hoipolloi and National Theatre Wales. With a true storyteller's knack for tapping directly into our imagination, aided by on-stage musician Jerry, Hughes jumped between memories of his 'Nain' or Grandma and a story he wrote as an eight year old boy with her. It was a little bit mad, a heck of a lot of brilliance.

Over in the poetry tent, poetry's answer to Russell Brand (in a suit) saw eloquent and funny Essex boy Luke Wright shine in his show Essex Lion, everyday tales in vivacious rhyming verse sizzling with spot-on social observation.

Catching a brief snatch of the Balletboyz on the charming Waterfront Stage (which appears to be floating on the river) was tricky as the riverbank and bridge with a view were rammed with eager spectators. One passing bloke said, "Look, naked men dancing," while a little girl who clearly couldn't wait for the costume change from nude trousers described it as "yucky ballet". You can't please them all.

As night covered the arena, a rare outing from Kraftwerk - techno's equivalent of The Beatles - on the main Obelisk stage would have been an epic enough way to cap off Saturday night (significantly, most theatre at the festival shuts up shop during headline acts). But for those lucky Theatre Tent-goers with The Famous Lauren Barrie Holstein on their schedules after the 3D graphics-enlivened music set (3D glasses were handed to festival-goers for Kraftwerk's set), something altogether more gob-smacking was in store.

Suffice to say, if you ever get the chance to see this egg-smashing piece of theatre-cum-performance art which rips into stereotypes of sex and pop strumpets, you will come out a changed man or woman. Probably traumatised. But in a good way.

I approached Sunday's offering with an altogether more military fashion (ie rigorous timetabling). Highlights came in the form of new, self-explanatorily-titled play Dirty Great Love Story which saw Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna regale a rapt audience with their rhyming duologue of how they fell into bed and two years later realised things might work. It's not quite Romeo and Juliet but is damn good, and does feature a balcony scene.

Also good was Pendulum's Bargain Emporium, a satirical re-imagining of The Elves and the Shoemaker for the 21st century world of exploitative manufacturing by company Maison Foo: it was inventive in a low-key Complicite way and deserved a much bigger audience.

Not all the weekend's shows were as rewarding. Among the unsatisfying from the main theatre fare was Mirrorball, a new Arcola show by Anthony Bull clearly fielding the second team, apparently directed by Yasmeen Arden, which felt like a drab sitcom rather than a bittersweet tragi-comedy about the onset of AIDS in the '80s.

Another was The Ethics of Progress: billed as an hour of a man explaining Quantum physics, mind-blowingly it really was just that. The compact crowd in the tent for Unlimited Theatre's lecture, complete with slides, applauded fiercely but I just didn't get it - and it wasn't the physics. I got that.

Admittedly I missed outings from Battersea Arts Centre and the Royal Exchange on Friday and the reportedly very good Daniel Kitson, despite the fact he seemed to have more slots on the theatre tent than any other show combined. There's the 'spoilt for choice' festival syndrome in action.

But there were enough eyebrow-raisers to wonder whether Latitude's Arts Curator Tania Harrison and her team were chasing comedians like Dylan Moran and Eddie Izzard so hard, there was less time for quality control on the drama front.

Perhaps that's unfair, especially when the real joy of Latitude is popping into a tent at random and discovering a show that's totally off your radar - the incredible, beatboxing Australian Tom Thum was the hidden gem find for me.

I filled my weekend theatre gaps with snippets of music but I'm pretty sure everyone else did this the other way round. Does that have to be the case?

Maybe theatres and companies themselves give up on festivals because they fear they'll be fighting with bands, or are focused on Edinburgh's great melting pot to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps they just want a summer break. I can't help feeling they'd be wise not to ignore such an exhilarating opportunity, even if it is dressed in wellies and face-paint.

- Vicky Ellis