Rachel Pronger

Review: Latitude Festival 2012

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Latitude doesn’t have the edgiest of images. As it enters its seventh year the Suffolk-based festival has gained a reputation for dyed sheep, Radio 4 friendly arts stages and mild mannered middleclass calm, perfectly likable but hardly cutting edge youth culture bait. Yet over the years, Latitude has gone from strength to strength, carving its own charmingly esoteric niche in the festival calendar. This year’s combination of genuinely top drawer comedy, theatre, drama and literature with its strongest ever musical line-up saw the pretty grounds of Henham Park, Suffolk transformed into a vibrant, if muddy, artistic hotspot.

What allows Latitude to remain distinct amongst the current glut of middleclass, terribly right on summer festivals, is the diversity of its programme. Comedy, theatre and literature tents at festivals can easily feel tokenistic, but here they are given the names and resources to allow them to genuinely hold their own alongside the musical acts. In fact, despite the strength of the music stages, it is other, non-musical performances that stick in the mind this year.

Only at Latitude are the alternative tents frequently just as feverishly packed as the main musical stages. On Saturday evening, Rich Hall’s Hoedown caused a minor kerfuffle when the tiny cabaret tent became utterly overwhelmed and punters comfortably seated inside after an afternoon of inconsequential variety were forced to stand whilst the queue outside, decked out in complementary white Stetsons, chanted their discontent. Fortunately, Hall’s set lived up to the hype, combining affectionate country and western pastiche with razor sharp improvisation. At one stage he even co-ordinates a proposal between a young couple in the front row, his lead guitarist presenting the bewildered prospective fiancé with a ring (which must have made for some awkward conversations on the journey home).

Overall, the quality of stand up remains high at Latitude, even if it seems to be in every comedian’s contract that they must open with a few token ‘Guardian reader’ stereotype gags before they can get to the meat of their acts. Camp Russell Kane, gruff Reginald D Hunter and unexpected West End superstar Tim Minchin all provide strong big name sets, but it’s Josie Long who steals the comedy tent. As gauchely adorable as ever, Long secures her status as the queen of gawky polemicising on Saturday afternoon with a set in which she appears to be equally comfortable doing wicked Ed Miliband impressions and urging us all (sarcastically) to join the EDL, as she is talking about long distance relationships (“like having a tamagotchi”) and turning 30. The perfect demonstration of how to combine political intent with big laughs without coming across as an inappropriately tipsy politician at a luncheon…

Elsewhere, GHP’s lacerating all male production of A Clockwork Orange in the Theatre tent on Saturday night provided an electrifying alternative to the fireworks and bombast of Elbow’s headline slot, dominated by extraordinary physical theatre sequences that pulse with visceral virtuosity and savage eroticism. While somewhat more sedate, the poetry tent – usually the reclusive uncle of a festival’s main stages – offers equivalent verbal thrills throughout the weekend. On Friday afternoon Tim Key’s fantastically morose poet persona – “One review described me as deliberately bad poetry. They’re wrong… it’s not deliberate”- effortlessly fused stand-up and poetry, further cementing his status as one of the country’s finest talents.

This year’s Latitude line up reads like a roll call of 2012’s most hotly tipped new acts: comedicly, with the likes of Nick Helm, Adam Hess and Nathan Caton, and musically in Lianne La Havas, Alt J and Django Django. The result, of course, is a lot of eye-watering clashes and gut-wrenching decisions over who to miss. Despite the guaranteed crowd-pleaser headliners of Bon Iver, Elbow and Paul Weller, it’s the smaller stages that offer the real thrills here at Henham Park.

Musically, Summer Camp brought some welcome post-Justin Vernon sunshine to the Film Tent on Friday night, filling in for the recently defunct phenomenal handclap band and accompanying their irresistible retro synths with footage from Footloose and Pretty in Pink. On Sunday morning Francois and the Atlas Mountains captivated a delighted crowd at the i Stage with dance routines and intensely lovable feather light French pop.

Yet it is genre defying R&B/Soul/Pop/Funk goddess Janelle Monáe who provides the weekend’s single most amusing, and memorable, moment, when she ends her set by silently convincing an entire crowd to quite literally get low through the sheer force of her personality. The collective euphoria when Monáe finally gave the captivated crowd leave to jump to their feet and “come alive” was a testament to the intoxicating highs a festival can provide when the right acts are given the right outlets. If Latitude keeps providing moments like this then it will continue to develop its reputation as one of the most artistically satisfying events on the festival calendar. Oh, and somewhere to dance after 3am would be nice too. Even Guardian readers enjoy a bit of post-cider Beyoncé.

Visit Giggle Beats tomorrow lunchtime for our top ten stand-ups at Latitude 2012…