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Michael Coveney: High old time with High Tide in Halesworth

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Things that everyone else has done but I've not done until recently include eating a meal in the Troubadour on the Old Brompton Road, watching the film of Les Miserables (not very good, is it?) and going to the HighTide Festival in Halesworth, Suffolk.

What a delightful experience this proved to be - apart from the plays themselves, of course - on a sunny holiday weekend with colleagues and friends from all parts. Now in its seventh year, this new work festival under the artistic direction of Steven Atkinson has a new chairman, Peter Wilson of the Theatre Royal, Norwich, and new executive director. Holly Kendrick.

I say "shame about the plays" but this is really because none of the three I saw was perfect, which is not to say they were a complete waste of time. The basic problem seems to be one of enforced thematic style so that they all sounded like things we've heard before, and other things we've seen done better by other people before, too.

So, the best of them, and feistiest, Declan Greene's Moth, is an Australian two-hander that even advertises itself as "channelling" Donnie Darko, Disco Pigs and Copenhagen. Stacey Gregg and Jordan Milfsud play young schoolfriends trying to cope with the boy's conviction that he's been charged with saving the world with a moth he's caught in a jar after an apocalyptic vision.

Then came Pastoral, a first play by Thomas Ecclestone starring Anna Calder-Marshall as an old dear making rude remarks about fat people she can see from her apartment window. The estate is closed down, the pavements crack, the forest pushes through, the bears are growling, the delivery man from Ocado is killed and cannibalised, the army has built a decontamination wall... gratuitous insults ("sex with fat people is like being humped by a bouncy castle"; sounds quite like fun to me) morphed into visionary Edward Bond via Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem (and other plays).

Actually, I quite enjoyed Pastoral, especially when the set started falling to pieces and some flowers thudded to the ground on lethal darts. I do hope no-one's foot gets in the way. And Calder-Marshall has a great gag about the difference between a hen party and a zoo: one has big hairy animals being poked by men in uniform; the other has a gift shop.

Finally, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Neighbors is an American, Clybourne Park-style "post-racial" black comedy in which a married couple (he's black and a classical scholar, she's white and, well, not a classical scholar) have trouble with some new noisy neighbours who turn out to be a politicised minstrel musical family who press all the sensitive cultural buttons and comprise a group of black actors in black face make-up and huge red lips.

As with Pastoral, Neighbors is rather straining to say the unsayable, or dig up a few fresh taboos to boo. Again, I quite enjoyed it, but it becomes far too convoluted for its own good and felt suspiciously like a vain attempt to resurrect something that hadn't gone down too well a few years ago at the Public Theater in New York.    

I'm glad I saw these plays in Halesworth if only because it saves me going to see them at the Bush, the Soho and the Nuffield in Southampton, where they all turn up, respectively, later this month and next.

And the sense of festival in the charming little town was palpable. The festival centre is The Cut, a well appointed arts centre that doesn't feel like an arts centre (it's an old warehousey-type building) and has excellent home-made cakes.

And both the other venues we visited, the Rifle Hall and the Printworks, were tangily redolent of past lives and functions, and cleverly and attractively adapted for performance. There are more plays and readings to savour through to next Sunday, as well as talks with Michael Frayn, Kate Mosse, Stephen Poliakoff and Roger Michell. 

As at all good festivals, even on a flying visit, you catch up with people you don't expect to see: the fine actor Tim McInnerny, for instance, or leading agent Dallas Smith, or the redoubtable Stratford East tecchie Ed Clarke (savouring the wonderful Adnam local brews in the Angel Hotel), or retired playwrights agent Michael Imison.

Imison, who looked in rude health, retired to the area to get away completely from the theatre. Then, of course, they started this festival just down the road. The late, great Michael Hordern had a similar experience when he retired to live quietly and go fishing in Newbury, Berkshire: some joker came and built the Watermill Theatre on his doorstep and asked him to become its first patron, as if he was doing him one hell of a big favour!


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