"People might start saying this is getting messy."
It's an offhand remark made by Shôn Dale-Jones midway through his newest piece, The Ladder, which ran as part of this year's Latitude Festival, that summed up the overall weekend. An audience member, Lizzy, had shouted from the audience and volunteered to come on stage to wave some plastic chairs around. She did so for a while, and then didn't leave. For the rest of the show, unrequested, she's sat stage right reading Greta Thunberg quotes to herself. It's an odd yet quietly amusing distraction from the rest of Dale-Jones' flashy, conceptually rich, tech-heavy routine about how apathy and optimism can run hand in hand.
The theatre offering at this year's Latitude felt a bit like having a Lizzy sharing your space. Present, visible, young, a source of vague entertainment, but still always just bit out of place. There was a scrappiness to the stage shows on offer – piecemeal and for the most part confined to the Faraway Forest area of the Southwold weekend festival.
For many punters, it was all a pick'n'mix programme – sitting down in a venue did not mean staying. Not a big fan of gig theatre? Fair enough, hotfoot it to another tent for some Russian avant-garde folk music. You could wander from Stereophonics to the snowy circus courtesy of Flip Fabrique. It's a relaxing, liberating way to sample artists and settle for favourites.
Flashes of genuine vibrancy came and went – gig theatre impresarios Middle Child seemed well on the way to another hit with Daniel Ward's grime-fuelled The Canary and the Crow, which had previews at Latitude ahead of a run at the Edinburgh Fringe in a couple of weeks. Another gig-gy company, Nabokov, had a lot of fun with Amen, sampling John Bercow for some politically charged jungle jamming.
Amidst the clamouring din it was individual voices that stood out – besides Ward, Ann Akin's solo show trying to find me, produced by tiata fahodzi with Talawa, delivered a frank exploration of millennial mental health, while there was endearing charm in an audience participation-heavy production of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum within the aptly named Forum Tent. Ciaran Dowd kept punters rapt with some whimsical storytelling, while on the Saturday Dance Umbrella shared the Waterfront space with the delightful Ben Folds, proving the nautical stage is one of the festival's best offerings.
It was a year of shows chock-full of liminality, of being caught between two states. In The Canary and the Crow, Ward found himself torn between his working-class home and posh private school lifestyle, Dale-Jones had to play both himself and a secondary character Hugh Hughes in The Ladder, while in Frantic Assembly's bitty Sometimes Thinking, the world shifted between real and dreamlike, abstract and concrete. Characters were constantly walking through doors, from one place to another. It's hard to shake an overarching feeling that the theatre programme was a response to a general social identity crisis.
But even Frantic Assembly's show, the headliner at the festival, felt undercharged and fleet – something that can't be said for Adam Lazarus' divisive Daughter, which leapt into the world of iffy parenting and toxic masculinity with a disconcerting bluntness. It's an uneasy watch and is far from graceful, but at least goes some way towards being genuinely memorable.
One of the best decisions was to put Wildcard's hugely successful Electrolyte inside the Film and Music Arena, soundproofing it from the near-inescapable bass throbs from the other stages nearby. Most shows were not so lucky. Electrolyte, combined with Pappyshow's new piece Care (about how we need to look after the NHS as much as the NHS looks after us), highlights two emerging companies firing on all cylinders. It's just a shame they overlapped on Latitude's schedule.
The most memorable piece of storytelling came, in the end, from Obelisk Arena performer Loyle Carner, presenting a series of songs exploring his relationship with his mother. It was a rich, touching moment, with a poignancy that was often missing from the more messy theatre line-up.