Offbeat Festival 2019

Twelve days of dance, comedy and theatre.
From Rhiannon Unbridled. Credit: Jackie Singer
Various venues in the centre of Oxford, Mon 17 June - Sat 29 June 2019
See the full programme on the Offbeat Website

Over the past four years, Offbeat Festival has built a reputation for bringing fabulous, award-winning theatre, music, comedy and dance to Oxford. With over forty (!) events across the twelve days, there is something for everyone.

For the theatre enthusiast, there are homegrown one-person shows including Give Me One Moment in Time, Run Stanley Run and British Vogue, innovative theatre such as Raw Transport (which uses the platform of VR to tell its story) and Rotterdam (a powerful, Oliver-winning LGBTQ+ exploration of gender and sexuality), and everything in between.

Comedic highlights include sets from the likes of Juliette Burton, Richard Soames, Sajeela Kershi and Aaron Simmonds, with Sophie Duker closing out the comedy portion of the festival, as well as kicking off July's Oxford Comedy Festival. Meanwhile, the offering for dance fans includes works from Sonia Lisa Dance Company, Moxie Brawl and Plaster Cast.

Then there are the events that are unlike anything you will have experienced before. We're Gonne Need a Bigger Boat is a free recreation of Jaws taking place in Gloucester Green Square, performed in twenty minute slots. PhoDGraphy Workshop, accompanying the Old Fire Station's latest exhibition, is a portrait photography session with you and your dog. And Mythmaking is a tour of the Ashmolean Museum with new yarns spun about some very old objects.

There's really too much to list in one preview of this festival and with must-attend events daily this is a festival you can take a quick dip in or plunge into. This is the Oxford arts scene at its best.

July 2, 2019
Trickster Gods and Staring Trophies

Mythmaking, Ashmolean Museum, 28th July 2019

Part of Offbeat Festival, Mythmaking is a unique kind of performance. Part walking tour, part storytelling performance, Mythmaking reminds us that, even in a treasurehouse of knowledge such as the Ashmolean, there are things we don't know. "Time is deep, and time is wide," as our tour guide said, and there are many artefacts that have fallen through the cracks of history, their provenance and story unknown.

That's where Mythmaking comes in. Six storytellers were given objects that the Ashmolean knows almost nothing about - often a rough age or location could be guessed at, but that was about the limit of the museum's knowledge, despite the best efforts of the resident researchers. The storytellers used these artefacts as a jumping-off point, making up stories on how they were made, the people behind them, and their significance to the society they may have come from - and, in some cases, to visitors to the museum today.

The pieces chosen were mostly sculptures, perhaps because these are more likely to survive out of their original contexts than less sturdy pieces - there were clay figures, a woman's face carved in mammoth tusk, and, intriguingly, a collection of eye-shaped tokens from an ancient temple to a long-lost religion. While the pieces followed a similar theme, however, the storytellers took them in a multitude of different directions. One told a Cinderella-inspired story featuring a mischievous trickster god, another told a comedy story about a staring contest (those eye-tokens were, he insisted, trophies for the winners of ancient staring contests), while another came up with a tale that made the audience think about the nature of museums themselves.

The performers' love of storytelling, and their fascination with the chosen artefacts, came through strongly throughout the event, tying the disparate stories together to into a cohesive whole. There were a few distractions early in the tour from the very enthusiastic jazz band playing downstairs, but the Mythmaking team dealt with this and with the other logistical challenges of the evening, making sure that there was plenty of space for the large crowd, and shutting the gallery doors to filter out the music (which, while good, didn't fit the calm tone of the event). For anyone who's interested in an alternative way to spend an evening, and a one-of-a-kind look at one of Oxford's best museums, Mythmaking is an excellent choice - keep an eye out for their future tours.

July 1, 2019
A pick-and-mix of accessible academia

Life and Death, Old Fire Station, Sat 29th June

The billing of 'Life and Death' - 'four Oxford University researchers explore life's big questions through drama, comedy and live music' - was deliberately ambiguous, though certainly suggestive of an updated version of the philosophical symposia of ancient academia. Indeed, being welcomed into the Old Fire Station's packed theatre with the offering of locally-produce fruit, cake and juice heightened the feel of sharing a feast of mental stimulation. Our host for the evening was The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) Head of Research Partnerships Vicky McGuinness, who introduced the audience to the work and aims of the Centre before ably and personably welcoming each act. The idea behind the night seemed to be to demonstrate the broad variety of ways in which humanities subjects can inform our perspective on life's questions and dilemmas.

Our first speaker was anthropologist JC Niala whose research for her Doctorate is on gardens and gardening. It was fascinating to gain an insight into how a humanities discipline contributes to discussions about the environment, given that this hot topic is often considered the remit of science. Niala demonstrated with humour and poetry how the anthropologist's examining of people and places to understand human nature is a crucial part of potential solutions to our currently destructive relationship with nature. Using the example of Japanese knot weed, she turned the traditional egocentric view that many humans hold, of humans as the top predators able to suppress nature, on its head.

Next we heard from cardiologist Will Watson, whose spoken word piece was all about the 'weird' hearts that cause bafflement to doctors by falling somewhere between 'fine' and 'not fine'. Although the subject of unhealthy hearts took us closer to questions of mortality (which was the area of discussion I had taken to be implied by the event's title), it was not obvious how his specialism fell into the category of a humanities subject. It was nevertheless an interesting way of presenting his findings.

Then Oxford University's Professor of Linguistics, Deborah Cameron, shared with us the trials, tribulations and absurdities of those who interpret her job title to mean that she is the arbiter of how to correctly use the English language. We were regaled with tales of being asked to mediate between feuding factions of a society of tuba players (should they call themselves tubists or tubaists?) and passing judgement on whether 'couch potato' is damaging for the potato industry. Cameron's message was that linguistics aims to be descriptive, not prescriptive, but at the end of the day linguistic problems tend not to be a matter of life and death.

Finally, Philosophy Professor and musician Paul Lodge joined forces with local legends Flights of Helios to perform three songs arranged by setting the words of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin and Ralph Waldo Emerson to music. The results were immersive and enthralling and served, like all of the performances this evening, to truly portray and explore the subject in a new light.

On the whole, 'Life and Death' demonstrated why Offbeat Festival is the kind of event that is unique to Oxford, drawing together as it did experts and artists in a way that served to engage, inspire and investigate. The only thing that I felt was missing was a Q and A session at the end, as so many of the topics touched upon would be ripe for further analysis. But in the limited time they had, this group of academics brought us a tapas-like selection of food for thought.

July 1, 2019
Spellbinding surrealist shenanigans

Witch Hunt at Arts at the Old Fire Station, Fri 28th June 2019

Directed by Cal McCrystal, A&E Comedy return with a surreal and darkly funny sketch show about how outsiders and the preyed upon can reverse their fortunes by embracing their fears and fighting back.

As we entered, the stage was bathed in an eerie green light and ‘Season of the Witch’ was playing. Soon we were introduced to the wise women who guided us throughout, complete with hilariously exaggerated boney hands. The sketches were framed as chapters in a fairytale, marked by the literal turning of pages in an enormous book-come-backdrop. This device paired with multi-rolling largely worked well to create a semblance of structure.

The characters created were varied; Boris the Wolf (brilliantly portrayed with Flash Heart oomph by Abigail in a half gent, half wolf costume) was suitably revolting, and I adored Emma’s fembot Gretel. Their surrealist comedy, woven through with a feminist message of fighting the power, worked well in this Grimm setting. The show was at its most potent during the moments when the actors broke the fourth wall and had an argument about each other’s actions, highlighting variety of opinions within feminism. Having been brilliantly introduced by Abigail, I wish there had been more time for exploration into why willies are considered funny but vaginas aren’t.

There are a decent amount of magic tricks peppering the piece which was a refreshing addition. The sheer number of costume changes was astonishing, as was the quality of the outfits. The age rating of 15+ is spot on; the duo does not shy away from swearing, nudity or limericks about climaxing.

The overall message is positive: don’t let your fears hold you back, and we are even treated to an empowering dance routine, complete with the jazziest leotards I’ve ever seen. By inverting the concept of a witch hunt, this piece comedically exposes the patriarchal elements in our lives and shows how we can use our inner ‘witch’ to reclaim the power for ourselves and hunt down the predators.

June 28, 2019
Dynamic performer makes her debut

British Vogue, Burton Taylor Studio, Thursday 27th June 2019

On Thursday evening a new voice in British theatre emerged in front of a sold-out audience. Poet and actor Ashanti Wheeler-Artwell, one of Offbeat's supported artists, made her debut performance with the potent British Vogue. Telling a story familiar to an entire generation, the one-woman piece is about Ashanti who, at the precipice of 25, finds herself trapped in a cycle of unemployment and Netflix binges. How does one escape this rut and find purpose in a world seemingly absent of motivation?

Wheeler-Artwell's play has a great deal to say about the world its protagonist inhabits. What it means to be British to Ashanti is a complicated concept. She has to deal with her mixed race heritage, her place in the local and international community, expectations placed upon her generation. If British Vogue doesn't quite thread its themes together, it is an admirable exploration of each. The piece has a particular impact when it comes to discussions of being mixed race and the impact this has on Ashanti's sense of Britishness. Several gut-punch encounters play out during the narrative, inspiring a great deal of empathy towards the piece's central figure.

The production is simply constructed, often contained to a small square in the intimate Burton Taylor Studio. The set is effective, a box room with a mattress and a surrounding of clothes and books. Tech is kept simple and the production has a slickness and a pace to it. British Vogue relies heavily on Wheeler-Artwell's skills as a performer, which feels a wise choice as she makes a compelling figure, lacing her protagonist with humour and some very human flaws. You ache for Ashanti to escape the cycle she finds herself in and discover who she is.

New for this year, the Supported Artists is an admirable way for Offbeat to further support fringe and more unique works of art. Ashanti Wheeler-Artwell's British Vogue is an engaging, often funny, always interesting one-woman show exploring a compelling set of topics. If the threads it is exploring don't quite merge together in the end, it doesn't stop it from being another terrific inclusion in Offbeat Festival.

June 26, 2019
An unbridled performance, literally, metaphorically and emotionally

Rhiannon Unbridled, Burton Taylor Studio, Tuesday 25th June 2019

Rhiannon has been an integral part of my life for some years – not only because she is one of my best friends and a marvellous, larger-than-life character, but also because I have a love of Welsh/Celtic mythology and hold great stead by the threads of bardic story-telling extant today. And it’s not just me, these ancient tales still resonate widely now, from Disney’s Black Cauldron to Fleetwood Mac’s 'Rhiannon', who “rings like a bell in the night”, and in tonight’s performance at the Burton Taylor, Jackie Singer picked up the reins of this mythology and gave it a good shaking through the medium of her own, shared experience.

Engaging from the outset, in spite of the minimal staging, Jackie’s performance opened with an introductory warm-up chat with the audience before introducing her interpretation of the Rhiannon myth gleaned from The Red Book of Hergest (recently exhibited at the Weston Library), in which Christian monks in the 14th century recorded the original story remembered in the Welsh oral tradition with references to white horses, black birds, cornucopia, fairies and magic. She then interpreted this in a capella song, accompanied only by the audience.

The following show then weaved song, music, mythology and Jackie’s own personal experience into a fantastic tapestry of sound, vision and emotion, echoing the ancient oral tradition the story is rooted in. Jackie’s own experience reflects some of Rhiannon’s mythology – her experience of love, violence, patronage, the struggle for self-confidence and self-expression are all ideas and images bounced around between Jackie’s reality and Rhiannon’s story. Added to this is the mythology of white horses and the notions of 'bridled' and 'unbridled'. Initially, Jackie introduces the audience to the traditional horse's bridle and her love of ponies as a child, but this leads to a later, angrier discussion of the scold’s bridle (examples to be found in the Ashmolean Museum) and the show ends in Jackie’s forceful rejection, literally and metaphorically, of the bridle and the bit – thrown to the four corners of the stage in a fit of unbridled passion.

References to 'unbridled' are multifaceted and interwoven throughout the piece: Jackie’s self-deprecation is uninhibited; the performance is unrestrained and the audience’s response, particularly when joining in the singing, is irrepressible; the piece calls for women to be unconstrained with unquenchable passion. A horse’s bridle itself is literally a prop on stage as well as the performance referencing 'to bridle' - showing resentment. And ultimately, it is the physical dismantling of the horse’s bridle which gives a powerful physicality to Jackie’s call that it is time for women to rise up.

There is an underlying honesty in Jackie’s performance which bewitches and beguiles the audience, provoking both laughter and melancholy. It is hard to categorise the piece and as such it is an ideal show for the ever-intriguing Offbeat stable. Ultimately the performance concludes as Jackie notes that Rhiannon’s story ends with her eventually achieving success as both a mother and a wife, and at this point in the Red Book – having seen her fulfil the Christian, feminine archetype – the monks see no need to mention her further. However, Jackie, who is now a mother and wife, does not see that as the end of hers or any other woman’s story, and thoughtfully suggests we invoke Rhiannon’s quietness and strength to awaken our hearts, passions and imagination and let our voices be heard. I agree 'it’s time'.

June 21, 2019
Powerful exploration of a timely subject

Rotterdam, Oxford Playhouse, Thursday 20th June 2019

Dealing with the complexities of gender and sexuality, Rotterdam is a powerful, complicated piece. At times witty, at others deeply sad, it is a play that lives up to the hype that it has garnered since it premiered in London, with its success including Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre at the 2017 Olivier Awards.

Set in the eponymous port in Holland, the play opens on Alice worrying over an email. It turns out to be perhaps the most important email she is going to send, as it is her coming out to her parents. Yet a turn in the evening leads to her girlfriend revealing that she is trans and wants to go from being Fiona to Adrian. From there Rotterdam deftly explores not only Fiona’s transition but the impact this has on Alice’s concept of her sexuality, over the course of two hours.

Writer Jon Brittain’s play impressively juggles short vignettes with longer scenes that are given the time to breathe, as conversations shift naturally from comedy to drama. Donnacadh O’Brian directs with a soft touch, which fits the play perfectly, keeping the narrative grounded. Matching the expert directing and piercing writing is Ellan Parry’s set. The action is contained within a box set, with chairs and box units used creatively. But whilst Parry’s set seems initially modest, it contains several secrets that I shan’t spoil here.

There is a terrific lived-in chemistry to the play’s quartet. Rebecca Banatvala finds the warmth and humanity in Alice, whilst never losing the character’s awkwardness as well as the swirl of emotions playing out during her narrative arc. Lucy Jane Parkinson has a particularly complicated role in the play, juggling the selfishness nature of the transition their character undergoes with the heart-breaking frustration it causes and the deep longing to belong at Fiona/Adrian’s core. Rotterdam can be a deeply sad piece, particularly as it explores the shifts in the relationship between Alice and Fiona/Adrian. Yet there is a great deal of levity that comes from Paul Heath’s Josh, with Brittain knowing just when to give him a tension-defusing comedic line, which Heath delivers perfectly each time. Stella Taylor makes a terrific impact as the free-spirited Lelani, even if at times the part threatens to resemble a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. These four performers comfortably match Brittain’s terrific script.

It is clear to see why Rotterdam has earned awards and praise throughout its run. From Brittain’s touching, beautifully judged prose (which I suspect will end up on school syllabuses) to an exemplary production that brings just the right technical touches to stand out, to an ensemble that does justice to the powerful themes at its core, this is one of the year’s best. Rotterdam is a refreshingly modern play and a theatrical must-see.

Rotterdam is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday, 22nd June 2019

June 20, 2019
Explore the digital abyss in this VR/RL performance where the virtual reality smells like tangerines

RawTransport, Oxford Playhouse W Lucy Room, Wed 19th June

Oxford’s Offbeat festival explores the unexpected, and this new show from Electrick Village, fresh from the Wandsworth Fringe, squirreled away in a seldom-seen private room in the Oxford Playhouse, throws curveballs right from the start.

Attendees are divided by smiling copy-and-paste stewardesses into first class and economy class seats. As the first class passengers sign their waivers and don various protective layers, my initial disappointment at my economy class ticket start to crumple; could mine be the better seat? The RawTransport™ first-class passengers, swaddled and sealed in their Oculus Rift headsets and closed-back headphones, sway and twitch through an experience that is less dream holiday and more the holiday snaps you’d discard, because they weren’t really showing anything of interest.

But inside the headsets, the bewitching 360° glamour of surround image takes hold, and has the first class passengers’ heads twisting and turning like owls, hands twitching at the sweetly orchestrated and pixel-perfect virtual and actual stimuli. As the plot begins to suck at the edges of the happy holiday, and the fixed smiles on the stewardesses start to crack and run, I wonder; is this weirder for us, or them? It’s strongly implied that the economy class seats are safer; but when all the passengers talked it through after the experience, the VR travellers said they’d felt safe and intrigued, even on the strangest shores of their discombobulating VR holiday.

At twenty minutes running time the show is brief, but intense – I left wishing I had been able to try the show in both roles, spectator and traveller, to get the full experience of RawTransport™, a highly experimental, distinctly novel, top-of-the-line virtual travel company that’s definitely still in beta, may contain some glitches, and should be approached with caution – especially by those inclined to get lost in the experience.

June 20, 2019
Propulsive rhyming rollercoaster

Alexander Cofield: Supernova, Wednesday 19th June 2019, Old Fire Station studio

Like a runaway, rap-infused train, Alexander Cofield's Supernova hit hard, threatening to tear off the roof of the Old Fire Station's studio. Over the course of a propulsive hour Cofield paused only for the briefest of breaths and the necessary gulps of water, as he took on a Herculean task of a one-person, Hamilton-esque rap poem epic. Supernova tells the tale of young Alex, trapped in North Piddle and yearning for escape. If there is a theme developing at this year's Offbeat Festival it is one of escape, of finding yourself. Cofield takes on various characters of the village as his narrative shapes up to a confrontation with the local bully at a most English of settings, the village fete.

Cofield is a dexterous performer, which is nowhere more apparent when he leaps from character-to-character. A particular stand-out moment is when he simulates downing a pint of beer, whilst keeping to the beat of the backing track. If none of the characters are quite as endearing or standout as the lead character, they do add depth and colour to the show, with a distinctively grotesque quality to many of them. Props are used sparingly but effectively, particularly a pair of reading glasses which help create an unnerving moment as Supernova slips towards folk horror.

At times the piece's narrative lets its performer down, with the show moving towards its climax at a speed that is often jarring. This fact is shielded by the frantic nature of the rap poetry, but alluded to by Cofield, who often feels like he is going to burst out of the format he is performing in. He has a wealth of charisma and bravado, with an ability to interact and feed off of the energy of an appreciative audience. Cofield is great and I'd gladly see him perform again. Supernova is also admirably complicated on a technical front, with its near constant soundtrack and effective use of lighting. You just wish there was something more to the plot to match the skill displayed in its telling. Still, this is another exciting addition to the programme for Offbeat, showing how terrific this festival is.

June 19, 2019
Knee-deep in teenage memories

Skip Skip Skip: Tuesday 18th June 2019, Old Fire Station studio

One of the strengths of Offbeat Festival is the platform it gives for smaller stories, more intimate pieces that might otherwise not receive hearing. Fitting nicely into this niche is Leanne Moden's Skip Skip Skip, staging as a work-in-progress in the Old Fire Station's studio space, which tells a powerful, personal story through a mix of poetry, storytelling and humour.

Leanne takes us back to rural Norfolk in 2002, where Norwich is seen as the beacon of escape and a job at HMV is seen as the dream. We are reminded that Britney Spears was the most influential person in the world. That Glastonbury that year had been headlined by Coldplay, Stereophonics and Rod Stewart. And for Leanne, it is the year she became a teenage goth.

Hanging over Skip Skip Skip is the pursuit all teenagers go through: the search for a tribe. Identity comes for Leanne from the clothes she wears, the music she listens to, the friends she meets. But in its own way this is what we all experienced. I may not have been a teen goth but I certainly identified with our protagonist's journey. The piece is charged with emotion, and I found myself with a lump in my throat for much of it. It reminds the viewer of their own growing pains and as I left I found myself seeking out the bands I had been into as a teen.

The staging of Skip Skip Skip was simple and restrained, absent of many of the technical add-ons that theatre tends to offer. The set-up was merely a chair with a black leather jacket. Maybe this is a product of the show's work-in-progress status, but it allowed the potency of Leanne's writing to come through even more. And the moments when props were used become all the more powerful. When Leanne pulls out a tube of lipstick (Midnight Black) and proceeds to apply it to herself, it becomes a transformative moment with far greater impact than it otherwise might have. I am unsure where Skip Skip Skip goes from here, but keeping things simple on the staging front works greatly in the piece's favour.

It is Leanne's words that matter and I wish I had a copy of them to quote throughout this review. With humour and dexterity, as well as a poetic flair that brings out the humanity in her story, Leanne weaves her tale, bringing impact in her carefully crafted text. Skip Skip Skip at times hits the viewer in the gut, but it is judged well enough to know when to lift our spirits. It really pitches Leanne Moden as a talent to keep an eye on, and once again highlights the strengths of a festival like Offbeat.

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