Imagine Watford is a free-to-attend, outdoor arts festival, that brings a diverse programme of theatre, dance, and circus performances to the High Street for two weekends each summer.
Professional companies, both local and international, descend upon the town with a dazzling selection of events. Weird art installations; quirky characters roaming The Parade; clowning; high-concept dance; vast spectacle: there's something here for everyone, and it fills the High Street with energy and life.
I love this festival, and I attend as many shows as I can. I also love to watch the reactions of other audience members to what they are witnessing. Tiny children sit silent, entranced by a dancer. A young man peers through a hole into a beehive and snorts with laughter at what he sees. Fascination, puzzlement, applause.
It's not necessary to understand, or even like, everything you see. But the fact that it's here, and for free, is astounding. We need this exposure to the arts. Our children need this exposure. Not everyone goes to the theatre, but when it comes to us, we should appreciate it. Let's watch, take part, invite our friends. Let's make sure that it happens again next year.
Here are my highlights.
You and I Know - Candoco
If you've ever been in love, you'll recognise this story. Teenage prom nerves, first loves, furious fights, finding the strength to say sorry - it's all here in this 15 minute dance piece. Set to appropriate mood music, this highly emotional romantic duet will leave you sighing sadly or reaching for the one you love. Excuse me - there's something in my eye.
Kamchàtka - Kamchàtka Street Theatre Company
I only managed to see the first 15 minutes or so of this performance, but I wish I could have stayed for the rest. Eight strangers carrying suitcases: who are they and what do they want from us? At first they don't do much. They huddle together, they stand with their faces in the sunlight as if it's the first they've seen in a long time. And then they turn to the people around them. The onlookers are hesitant: they're willing to say hello, but will they go with these strange characters when asked? It turns out that yes, they will. Eight people are persuaded to lie down, with suitcases as pillows, and enjoy the sunshine with these strangers. The strangers then go into a shop. It is strange to them. They stand in the window, staring out at the audience, who stare back at them. And then... What's happening here? They're acting as though the outside is dangerous, the shop a refuge. They're waving people in to safety. Will anyone go? Yes, they will: scuttling across the short distance that separates audience from performer as if they are in real danger and these strangers their only hope of safety. And that's where I had to leave them. This is a fascinating piece: playful, mischievous, and extremely relevant.
Urban Astronaut - Highly Sprung
A future without clean air. A girl, alone, planting trees in the dirt. An astronaut, by turns breathtaking, fearsome, fearful. This is a moving and thought-provoking dance piece, and I ran through a range of emotions watching it. Its highly relevant subject matter makes much of it rather discomfiting to watch. The dance itself is gorgeous, scary, sad. The astronaut, appearing from behind the audience, rising and falling as he moves closer, is glorious, terrifying. Overall a beautiful piece, that left me both sad and hopeful. Inspirational.
Big Mob - Bedlam Oz
Giant slinkies shuffle and tumble their way along the street. They seem to look around and sniff the air, huddling together, breaking apart. Small children are drawn to them as though they were bizarre insects. What are they? Are they dangerous? Is it ok to touch them? It's only a matter of time before one of them eats a child, and then the screaming starts... Hilarious to watch, just don't take your eyes off them.
Galileo - Deus Ex Machina
A gigantic orrery is raised from the ground, ascending thirty metres, suspended and spinning. Galileo sits atop it, looking through his telescope and pondering the nature of the universe. Below him, a couple dance on a suspended globe, falling in and out of love. Women in white dresses become lanterns and stars, sailing across the night sky. Across the darkness, bursts of light and heat, music and words. Staring up into the night, with the rain falling around me, I feel a true sense of wonder. This is the glorious spectacle that is Deus Ex Machina's 'Galileo': a whirling masterpiece of acrobatics and aerialism, utterly enchanting. This is where science is transformed into magic.
If I Could I Would - Mimbre
Sometimes life gets you down. You wake up late, you're out of coffee, you have no clean clothes, and then you have to go to work. If I Could I Would is about the knocks and bruises we take in everyday life, and how people will - quite literally - walk all over you. It's also about changing your story, regaining your power, and becoming your own superhero. From street harrassment to a work colleague spilling a broken heart onto her desk, the heroine of this piece is subjected to an ever-increasing amount of pressure before pausing, and pushing back. Heavily comical, sometimes cartoon-like in its choreography, this is an uplifting piece of highly-skilled acrobatics and dance, with a strong story and empowering ending. Top notch!
Bingo Lingo - Wild n Beets
Beryl and Cyril: we've met them before, way back in the 1980s. Beryl in her leopard print suit and sparkly top, Cyril with his woodstain tan and laquered hair. With their married-couple banter and their sweetly risque humour, this pair bring both warmth and tackiness to their giant game of bingo. Billed as 'a game for everyone, where disability politics meets cheeky end of the pier humour', this show is funny, deliberately painful, and just a little bit educational. Really enjoyable, and no effort required!