'Salon Perdu' - literally 'The Lost Room', although in the case of The Adnams Spiegeltent during the Norfolk and Norwich Festival it is a bit of a misnomer. For the two weeks of the festival one simply has to follow the lights through Chapelfield Gardens, look for Elsie the fire-breathing dragon, and home in on the excited chatter from the outdoor bar and pizza kitchen. The unique form and structure of the Spiegeltent draws people in as the proverbial bees fly towards the honeypot, or like students hovering around short-dated food in Tesco Express. Its interior of wooden floor, mirrored panels and tented ceiling never fail to impress - it's like walking back into an age of walking canes, garters and spats. The top DJ's, bar staff and inimitable Spiegelhosts are there to guarantee an unforgettable visit and, when it comes to the entertainment, the sheer variety of acts will tick more boxes than a Norfolk and Norwich Festival Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire.
I popped this years Spiegeltent cherry with a visit straight after the close of business at The Garden Party on Saturday. I was lucky enough to watch the sold-out performance of White Nights, a cabaret styled circus and music show from Finland's Race Horse Company. The evening is hosted by New York City singer Sophia Urista, who introduces each act and entertains us with the occasional song, including a stripped back version of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love'.
White Nights (photo from NNF programme)
The six circus acts start with a gravity-defying turn on the Chinese pole from a bare-chested Petri Tuominen before it is the turn for the naked man with the big balls (I am sorry, it is a cheap joke but I could not resist it). There is a nudity alert in the festival programme, and a 14+ age restriction, but I have to say that the entrance of Rauli Kosonen, whilst possibly justified when artistically portrayed in the shadowed lighting of the opening sequence, cannot be excused away as anything other than pure exhibitionism when the spotlights are turned on and he is cavorting on that balancing ball. I am not shocked, and there are more than a few disappointed sighs from the audience when he finally dons a linen shirt and shorts combo for the remainder of his act, but I just wonder what the reaction would have been if Scottish contortionist Iona Kewney had explored a similar avenue of artistry whilst her limbs were being twisted into stomach-churning angles and places?
The juggling is good, maybe not as impressive as last year's festival visitors the Gandinis, but the giant hoop performance and the teeterboard finale is stunning. It is a great show, and not one to be missed, but it needs that rumbustuous Saturday night audience to cut loose and embrace the spirit of cabaret with some cheeky repartee.
Having re-fuelled with a pint of Ghost Ship from the bar outside whilst the arena and stage area is cleared, we are re-admitted for the Saturday late show, a performance by Breton singer songwriter Jérome Fagnet and his band (well, drummer Sam), who perform as Broken Back. His Euro-pop vibe, created out of strong acoustic melody infused with electro beats and with Sam's drumkit topped with bongos and being struck with felt-tipped sticks it adds a tropical feel to the evening, is a sure-fire hit. We are dancing by the end of the first number, and don't stop until the end. There is a lovely cover of Bon Iver's 'Skinny Love', but the rest of the set is original material.
Broken Back in the Spiegeltent
I loved Broken Back, and will almost certainly end up downloading the album, but it was such a shame that not one song was sung in French, or even his native Breton. As with other successful Euro acts like Christine and The Queens and Selah Sue there appears to be industry pressure to release English-only product, especially for the Americans. Do we really need to be so intolerant of the beauty inherent in other European languages?
With the Garden party over for another year, I ventured back into the Spiegeltent on Sunday night for the intriguing collaborative performance between funk-jazz quintet Kneebody, and Californian 'beat scientist' Daedelus, collectively recording as Kneedelus. It pays to adopt a policy of 'explore and experiment' when picking shows from the Norfolk and Norwich Festival programme, and this performance was an absolute case in point. Despite the Grammy nomination in 2009 for their album with Theo Bleckmann I hold up my hands and admit to being unfamiliar with the work of Kneebody, but the blistering energy of these five guys, with the stunning saxophone playing by Ben Wendel and trumpet work from Shane Endsley is one of the most amazing things I have heard this festival. And to add into that free-form jazz mix an electronic musician like Daedelus with the seeming ability to escape from the confines of pre-programmed samples and beats and infuse them seamlessly into the jazz riffs was simply magical. Seek in the darkest corners and you will find pure gold.
Kneebody and Daedelus (photo from NNF programme)
For my fourth show from this year's Spiegeltent programme I decided to take a punt last night on Penny Arcade, and her one-woman show 'Longing Lasts Longer'. Described in the programme as 'a force of nature', this former Andy Warhol Factory superstar (whatever that means - famous for knowing Warhol longer than the statutory fifteen minutes?) is certainly a brash bundle of New York energy, dressed tonight in a pink wig and a short red party frock. Her diminutive stature gives her the air of a character that might have escaped off the pages of a Roald Dahl novel, but she is certainly no candy-covered confection. Nothing is off-limits as she rants about the gentrification of her beloved Big Apple, the birth of 'public relations' and our controlled lives at the hands of advertising agencies still worshiping at the church of Edward Bernays and his uncle, Sigmund Freud. Even cupcakes become subjected to her anger.
Penny Arcade (photo from NNF programme)
She happily admits to not being that well-known in the UK, but manages to pronounce 'Norwich' correctly (even if Norfolk does become Norwolk). Checking her out on Wikipedia reveals a long association with avant-garde performance art, and stage shows that go back as far as 1985. She is incredibly well-read, and has an intellectual wisdom that is also drawn from personal life experiences of the past six decades. She is also extremely persuasive in her logic train. It is all too easy to simply climb on board during the performance without having the time to question or counter each statement she makes. At times it verges on salvationism, urging young people to reject consumerism and challenge social media. It may not be entirely original, but it is delivered via the unique perspective by a very genuine and funny performer. 'Force of Nature' is not a term to be used lightly, but in the case of Penny Arcade it fits like the rebellious glove - one finger is constantly sticking up.
There are so many gems within the Spiegeltent this year that it is obviously impossible to see them all, and still find time to fit in other events, but do make sure you visit before it is too late. It is a beautiful, magical place, an essential part of any Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Yes it is a place to meet and have a drink and a dance into the wee hours, but it is also host to some incredible performances.
Book tickets at http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/
Learn more about Race Horse Company at http://www.racehorsecompany.fi/
Check out Broken Back at http://www.broken-back.com/
Penny Arcade plays a second date in the Spiegeltent tonight (May 24th). Website is at http://pennyarcade.tv/