Reviewed by Simone Green
This glorious and sunny weekend – which also featured monsoon-like rain, on occasion – was spent at our fourth year of this ever-magical family arts festival. The setting was Cheshire’s magnificent Rode Hall with it’s stunning rolling park lands, and the theme was singing, dancing, playing and relaxing, within nature, under the stars. With an absolutely jam-packed programme of events, and areas tailored to welcoming children and adults with specific needs, Just So! offers a true sense of inclusiveness, a thirst for adventure, and a wave goodbye to the ‘everyday’ in our lives.
I mention the rain early as it did initially feature prominently this year, but with a festival this fantastic we still found ourselves excitedly pitching our tent, dressing everyone up in this year’s choice of fish tribe regalia (with sparkling glitter and even a fin headband for my nine year old daughter), and feeling gung-ho! So too were hundreds of the most imaginative, creative and ebullient festival-goers. Yes, there was mud, but a convenient fact (for most youngsters we saw and definitely for my daughter) is that children LOVE mud! This was a very positive consequence to the conditions this year and although it made things trickier for parents and carers, let’s face it: if the children are happy, we’re happy!
This year Just So gave us another enticing schedule of shows. You can’t help but be passionate about theatre for children; there’s simply nothing quite like it to help them understand the world they’re growing into, to see themselves reflected back and understand they’re not alone. Not every show, though: sometimes, it doesn’t have to make much sense, but it can still make the young audience feel something. It’s also great when it’s irreverent, and it fascinates them, and it makes them laugh.
The great outdoors brings added delight to watching plays, musicals, operas, acrobatics, dance, circus skills, storytelling and live science experiments – all of which were waiting for us to enjoy this year. A show which instantly took off and inflated the audience with joy was the Giant Balloon Show (Dizzy O’Dare). Featuring regularly across the weekend, this award-winning clown has created a very funny and entertaining show with audience participation for the children and an awesome eighties soundtrack, culminating in seemingly impossible feats with an enormous red balloon. Great fun and definitely a must see moment.
Staying in the Village Green area, Sirin (Newton’s Ladder) drew from ancient myths and gave us an impressive aerial courtship between a rigger and a nesting bird. Frequently, two theatrical spectacles charged through the Green. One was Boudicca (The Wheelabouts), amassing her army and looking for Romans to punish! An excitable group gathered for their tribal face paints from the flame-haired Celt as she flashed through. The other was Vespaqua (Swoolish Garage), a mobile bathhouse carrying a different and brave festival family each time, always waving happily, splashing about in their bathers! An unforgettable experience for the kids and adults alike. Toast (Pif-Paf) served us with a magical world of stories, charming chanting, and songs for all ages. Throughout the day the curious Dream Antelope puppets could be found interacting with the children and setting them challenges. With Adrift, Kapow Dance Theatre gave a performance as moving as their wooden raft as two women clung onto and battled with the ocean and each other: a fascinating and engaging piece as the pair learned to live and care for each other in the face of adversity.
In the Woodland Theatre – a natural auditorium of muddy stalls and a grand circle not for the faint-hearted – was a very popular first opera Hurrah for Pirate King (Absolute Opera). The audience were rammed to the forest gills, which was no surprise: with well known songs fabulously sung, and pirate moves for the children to copy, the king set sail via Hushabye Mountain and Cat Island with a quest to find the legendary unicorn treasure.
On the large Footlights stage where the bands played (Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers are my daughter’s favourites), the Halle Children’s Choir treated us to Lin Marsh’s mesmerising adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling Just So story How the Leopard got his Spots. The young performers were fantastic, creating an atmosphere of excitement and joy. We were also thoroughly spoilt by an appearance from the witty and legendary poet John Hegley (though maybe his performance would’ve better suited one of the more intimate venues).
In the Roll Up, Roll Up arena were a fun and talented variety of circus acts, clowning and acrobatics. Lifted was an impressive spectacle of three new collaborators, displaying dynamic feats of balance and strength. Strong Lady (Charmaine Childs) was a huge hit with my child; she spoke about this frequently and couldn’t believe the strong lady could lift two large men! My House (Apocalyptic Circus) was a brilliantly original piece in which the performers invited you to peer through the windows at the flexible inhabitants. With mime, dance and acrobatics, this show drew the crowds and was quite a spectacle. A huge highlight was the return of the skilled and charming theatre troupe The Fabularium, making its debut performance of The Hare and the Moon. With beautiful head pieces, gorgeous harmonies, original music and an enchanting tale from Far East Asia, the show was loved and delighted in as the light was returned to day and the night sky began to glow again.
These are just the theatre highlights, but there was so much to experience: a fantastic modelling workshop with Aardman Animations, every kind of dancing including baby-wearing, a giant pass the parcel, the hilarious kids’ stand-up James Campbell, a wonderful area just for babies, tribal and lantern parades, campfire stories, a magnificent giant marble run, family yoga, a barefoot walk – an endless list!
A happy 10th birthday to Just So! Long may the adventures continue.
Simone is a trained actress and has worked in the theatre and television. She has also run drama workshops for children. She now teaches in a primary school in East London and regularly enjoys trips to the theatre with her six year old daughter.