Monday, 30 May 2016

And Now, My Friends, The End Is Near... (The Final Weekend of This Year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival)

I can't believe it's almost over. We are approaching the final weekend of events of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and already the question with which volunteers are greeting each other has typically become "Have you got any more shifts left?".

I spent Thursday night wearing my Norwich Arts Centre lanyard as I held fort on the box office for another two sold-out Festival shows, this time organised by the Norwich Writers Centre. Whilst I was not able to see or hear either event, the venue was buzzing with anticipation as the auditorium filled up for the annual Harriet Martineau Lecture, to be delivered by the world's number one Dub Poet and former Black Panther, Mr Linton Kwesi Johnson. Johnson cuts a dapper figure as he enters the venue, putting me and my t-shirt and denims to shame, but it is his reflections on the theme of black emancipation as championed by Martineau in the nineteenth century, contrasted with his own more recent observations, that makes his appearance so powerful.

There is a large VIP guestlist for both Johnson's lecture and the debut performance of Martin Figura's 'Doctor Zeeman's Catastrophe Machine' that follows it. Add to that some confusion over ticket collection, and with even more people hoping to buy tickets on the door, it is a challenging shift. By the end I am too late to make it to the Spiegeltent to see hot jazz and ragtime band, the FB Pocket Orchestra, so instead head home.

Friday finds me re-energised and refreshed, and upon checking my NNF programme I discover that the 1.00pm performance at The Spiegeltent, Big Bad Wolf, is not in fact a children's show but a concert by four students from the Royal Academy of Music. Their side project is a contemporary jazz band featuring an unconventional line-up of trombone, electric bass, guitar and percussion. The concert is the last in a series of five from the Royal Academy's students, and looks like one not to miss so I get my skates on.

Big Bad Wolf

This is a complete contrast from the two Octagon Chapel concerts that I attended earlier, but is a jazz-lovers' delight, and the Spiegeltent once again provides a very special venue that impresses artists and audience alike. Thanks to Owen Dawson (great to see a trombone player taking centre stage), Michael DeSouza (sublime six-string bass playing and solos), Rob Luft (guitar and vocals) and Jay Davies (drums) for sharing the fruit of their collaborative composition and playing with us this lunchtime.

My 'proper' Friday event involves being Coach Assistant for passengers being transported from Norwich to the Billy Bragg concert at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. This will be my third visit to the famous indoor circus building, having already stewarded at two performances of William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' (directed by our festival director William Galinsky), and Bragg has such a legendary status that I am desperate to see him perform. It is another sold-out show, and I really hope that, as Coach Assistant, I will not be left outside.

I am lucky. Fellow volunteer James and I are allowed into the venue, and are able to watch the show from the uppermost tier, right by the bar. It is the expected mixture of music, comedy and politics, and in between Braggs' views on such topical matters as Brexit and the French employment law disputes, we are treated to lighter discourses on matters as urbane as DIY and Morrissey's shorts. The songs are culled from a glittering back-catalogue and culminate in a ring-side massed sing-along to the classic 'A New England', with the last verse touchingly dedicated to Kirsty MacColl.

Billy Bragg

The show has over-run, and in spite of an earlier plea to our passengers to make a swift return to the coach we still have to wait whilst visits to the toilet are queued for, and one lady returns to retrieve her spectacles. There is no sign of any of our outgoing no-shows (we had thought that they might have made their own way to Great Yarmouth earlier in the day, and would be expecting transport back), and our driver is desperate to get going. I do hope we didn't leave anyone stranded in Great Yarmouth. If we did, I am sincerely sorry.

Saturday finally provides me with a chance to attend a performance of 'Wild Life' at the Norwich Playhouse. This is a show that has been over two years in development, and features ten young singer-songwriters from the area, and has been co-commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Belgian arts centre, CAMPO. Over the course of 70 minutes the cast take us on a journey through their hopes, fears and observations of modern life. It is a spectacular sonic and visual collage during which each cast member explores a different theme through their own personal performances, which are drawn from a mixture of personal experience, dramatic creation, and individual expectation. The show is brutal, shocking, and honest, but at the same time funny, joyous and entertaining. Director Pol Heyvaert has crafted these ten young individuals into a cohesive force that becomes a mouthpiece for the younger generation and a revelation to those before.

'Wild Life' was, for me, my personal highlight of the entire festival. Every performer showed a remarkable maturity and talent, and every song was a crafted masterpiece. I do hope that every one of them can take this experience and find success in future projects.

The cast of Wild Life (NNF photo) 

My very last Norfolk and Norwich Festival volunteer shift for 2016 is a last-minute shout-out for a Spiegeltent box office assistant prior to the show from the exciting Columbian ex-pat band now based in Belgium, La Chiva Gantiva. It is yet another sold-out Saturday show, so most of the shift is spent fielding requests for returned tickets. A couple of un-required complimentaries are handed back to me with permission to use or re-sell, and I delight a previously disappointed customer, making another thirty quid for the festival coffers, but shooting myself in the foot in the process. "Use or re-sell", the gentleman had said. I could so easily have stuck one of those in my pocket, thereby guaranteeing my own admission to the show.

As it is I have to hang around the entrance to the Spiegeltent hoping for a chance to get inside. Even the volunteer lanyard fails to cast its usual magic, and my thoughts return to that ticket I could have had. Finally, the Spiegelhosts are allowed to admit me, and I enter a sweaty, heaving mass of people dancing joyously to the most divine fusion of funk, rock, and South American rhythms that you have ever heard in Chapelfield Gardens on a Saturday night. This is the perfect end to my Norfolk and Norwich Festival as I join in with the packed out crowd and jump, clap, wave and boogie my way through the last hour of their generous 90 minute set. My tired old legs are going to hate me in the morning, but for now I just don't give a damn. If I'm going to go, I'm going to go down dancing and enjoying myself!

There are still a handful of events occurring on the final Sunday, including another 'Walk With Me' out at Felbrigg Hall, and final performances of 'Wild Life' and 'White Nights' in Norwich, but for most of us in the 'Vollie Team', it is now the time to reflect and refresh. The Spiegeltent Garden becomes an afternoon focus for those of us wanting to celebrate and rejoice in our experiences of the last two and a half weeks. Old friendships have been renewed, new friendships forged, and some great memories and experiences shared.

There is nothing quite like the Norfolk and Norwich Festival fortnight, and I loves it.

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