Play Festival 2013 - Llanfyllin, Wales, 14th-18th August

Play festival 2013 If you don’t know about Play Festival then you bloomin’ well should! There is currently nothing else quite like it in the UK. This year’s event was every bit as good as the previous years, possibly even better.

At 12pm on the Wednesday the hundreds of ticket holders started to pour into the site. Greeted, as ever, by the friendly gate staff we got our soon-to-be-grubby hands on the info sheet and this year’s passes; a lanyard with hand painted Play pendants. Only some didn’t say “Play” but things like “bop”, “laugh”, “boogie” and “love”.

As the afternoon progressed the campsite filled and the Firetoys stall was erected and loaded with stock. With just enough time to greet the Play family and grab some grub we all congregated in the big top for the welcome talk.

Doin' a dance. Copyright: Alex MorrisAmong the usual important information Duncan (Play’s main man) revealed that those with passes that said something other than “Play” had a job to do, namely, to encourage the behaviour described on their pendant. The one exception was the “love” pendant – there was only one of these and that person had a very special task. The lovely Rowan, who works on the Firetoys festival stall, just so happened to receive this pass but (tut-tut) she wasn’t at the welcome talk so we were all left in suspense.

On Thursday the epic workshop timetable leapt into action with over 120 workshops spread over three days. This, I believe, is a record for Play. These workshops included a separate aerial timetable that covered the not one, but two aerial rigs on site. Play officially had a better aerial set up than this year’s EJC. There was even a Chinese pole workshop. In your face Toulouse!

Slackliner Ben. Copyright: Sandy McClureOther workshops included poi from Teddy, Keith and others, hooping with Brecken, Emma, Gale, Gail, Livi and others, contact staff from Ninja Dave, Aileen, Teddy and myself, whip cracking with Simon Ratzker, dragon staff from Jed, club manipulation from Marvin, juggling, gymnastics, slacklining with Ben Skelton and Ben Gringold, contact juggling, belly dance, flow wand, fans, knitting, bar flair, moon walking, staff juggling, hat tricks, contact dance and more.

The only pauses in the hectic workshop schedule were for a couple of daytime shows. First up it was Organised Kaos with their youth circus show. The young people from Cardiff’s youth circus (and some cameos from O.K. alumni) did a great job but unfortunately the show was rained off before it finished.

Thankfully the Welsh weather was kinder to us for Shake That’s show on Friday. Word on the street was that these guys, a five man bar flair show, were pretty awesome. And I tell you, the street don’t lie.

Shake That. Copyright: Sandy McClureIt’s no exaggeration when I say the Shake That show was one of the best juggling / manipulation shows I have ever seen and I think most of the people at Play would agree. The characters were great with a hierarchy between them being established early on. Each had their individual moments in the 45 minute long show but the real beauty was in the sequences that involved all five. Superbly conceived and rehearsed complicated bar flair sequences were executed flawlessly, often to great comic effect. There was also plenty of audience interaction with a lucky few getting free cocktails. Shake That ticked all the boxes; exquisite comic timing, highly entertaining, tight choreography, super hard tricks, booze flying everywhere and they even sent an ice cube down a ski jump, through a ring of fire and into a cocktail. They thoroughly deserved the standing ovation they received at the end of the show.

Of course, the shows aren’t restricted to daytime hours. Thursday evening was the open stage. Opening the open stage were the contact dance troupe Flight and Flee whose members hail from the UK, Spain and beyond. After a great little 1950s style club swinging act came Gale “FunRa” Francis’ isolation-heavy twin hoop act. Gale is one of the best loved and most well-known faces in the Play family so as the compere announced her name the crowd went totally bonkers. I’ve had the pleasure of performing with Gale before and I’ve seen her routine several times but her Play open stage performance was the best and tightest I’ve ever seen it. Wonderfully, what felt like half the crowd cried “otcho!” at the appropriate moment further widening Gale’s smile.

Amy. Copyright: Sandy McClureNext up was Amy Amelia with a beautiful contact juggling act. Both her costume and choice of music gave the routine a dream-like feel and she made excellent use of the wine glass rubbing sound effects in the music. Using both immaculate isolations and controlled body rolls, Amy had the crowd mesmerised. Following Amy, and all the way from California, was Brian Thompson. His cheeky smile and great stage presence really added to the club swinging/manipulation/juggling act. Though full of well-received tricks I did feel Brian didn’t get the appreciation he deserved for his double club fishtails – super hard moves that I thought the Play crowd should have gone wild for.

Truan Mathais gets the award for funniest act of the open stage. His ninja parody character was greeted with one of the only good heckles of the event (for a discussion of heckling see the Play Facebook page): “I can see you!” After exhibiting some skills with a bo staff and the “rope dart of destiny” things got a little homoerotic when he brought a volunteer on stage. The lucky participant had to reach inside the ninja’s, ahem… “front compartment” and retrieve the orb of destiny – a contact juggling ball. The act finished with Truan balancing a shoe on top of the ball on top of his head.

Brian's double fishtails. Copyright: Sandy McClureTruan’s brother, Brydan, was next on stage with a ring juggling piece featuring some great tricks and movement and ending with him juggling five. Krisztina Toth showcased her unique hoop act that focussed on the visual effects she could create with the hoop and the wonderful dress she was wearing rather than tricks. The effect was as beautiful as it was captivating and a real crowd-pleaser.

Morten Friis Kjaer was the penultimate act of the show. Morton busted out the most tech contact poi routine I have seen featuring body rolls I, personally, have never seen before let alone in a choreographed show. Purely from a tech point of view Morton’s act may well have been my favourite in the show. Headlining, possibly because he needed the darkness, was Guilliame Cousson with a light show. It was a real shame that the timing with the music was out by a fraction of a second during the glow ball part of his act. The second part featured LED fingers which allowed Guillaume to produce the illusion he was passing a point of light between his hands and even passing through his body. A few of us were disappointed he didn’t do the classic move of eating the light and retrieving it from his rear end. However, this probably wouldn’t have fitted in with the general feel of his show!

Gale's game face. Copyright: Sandy McClureFor an open stage (acts volunteer themselves rather than being chosen by Play’s show department) at a tiny little event like Play the standard was exceptionally high. I kind of feel sorry for next year’s open stage performers having to follow this year’s show.

Next up in the evening show schedule was the Fire Gala. Hosted and curated by Flame Oz’s Dave Knox. The show opened with SaFire and their belly dance and fire palm routine. SaFire are made up of Sorcha, Phillipa and Kate and they returned later in the show with a fans and fire umbrella act. Also using fans were Flambé Circus Theatre and their nicely choreographed three-person routine. Simon, who has been working hard to push fan technique in this country (the Americans and Russians are well ahead in this area) demonstrated fan work that went well beyond simply flapping them about and looking pretty (though Simon and the girls did look very nice). Following Flambé was Truan who had lost his ninja outfit but picked up a partner, Rachael. The two performed a partner acro act using fire palms and feet and fire fans.

There was a strong American contingent at this year’s Play and representing the scene from across the pond were Marvin and Jennifer Ong with a sweet, yet trick-packed partner poi routine. Simon from Flambé then returned with a spectacular double fire whip performance.

Truan and Rachael. Copyright: Ben KermodeNext up was a veritable legend of the UK staff spinning scene; Ninja Dave. Dave busted out some of his trade mark contact staff (I swear his shoulders are made differently to everyone else’s) before picking up another staff and doing contact doubles. Just when you though he couldn’t possibly get more sticks on his body a third appeared! It’s a bit of a shame Dave didn’t nail his final three-staff trick but even so it was an awesome act.

Enter another legend, this time from the world of poi, Ireland’s Ronan McLoughlin. Ronan performed a fairly slow but hypnotic act full of tight tech poi. Some of this was lost in the darkness, a hazard of fire performances, but you couldn’t miss his horizontal stalls. They were as near to perfect as you’re likely to get. Ronan’s act was my personal favourite from the fire gala.

Finishing up the trio of legends was Emma Kerr. Emma is one of the world’s best known and most talented hula hoopers not least because of her whacky style. Emma’s act was chocka with some of the tricks she’s most well-known for; crotch hooping and using mismatched double hoops. And how she pulled off those body rolls with a fire hoop is beyond me.

Headlining the fire gala were legends-to-be, Oscar and Elliot with a partner poi act. Recruited at the last minute their timing was excellent and the interweaving partner tricks were complicated and well-executed. The end of their act seemed a little unnatural but they did a great job overall and are definitely a duo to keep your eyes on.

Going out with a bang on Saturday night we had the Gala show. It started as it meant to go on with the best entrance a compere could make; crowd surfing from the back of the crowd to the stage, initiated, I believe, by another rare, choice heckle.

Matt Hennem. Copyright: Sandy McClureCompere of last year’s legendary Renegade Natty Lunatricks got a last minute promotion and was the host for the Gala and did a sterling job. Nat is always entertaining and more than witty enough to despatch rubbish heckles.

The strong international field was once again present in the Gala with the first act featuring Brian from the open stage. Not only did he bring his infectious grin with him but also his partner Bri Crabtree, also from California. Their act was a cute ball passing routine with some great visual patterns.

Next we returned to British shores with one of the UK’s finest contact jugglers, Matt Hennem. Matt’s routine started with the classic mime trick of isolating his brief case giving the illusion it’s stuck in mid-air. Tighter than a pair of emo skinny jeans this bit of mime set the standard for the rest of his act. Out of the brief case can a contact ball which, with wonderfully precise isolations integrated with body popping and amusing facial expressions, Matt succeeded in convincing even the most experience contact juggler that the ball had a mind of its own. He also made fantastic use of misdirection to trick us into believing the ball passed through his stomach.

Rico and Nawal. Copyright: Sandy McClureFrench hoopers Rico and Nawal followed Matt and presented their act “Senziya”. The routine was heavily dance influenced and included some great choreography with the pair passing the hoop and a hat between them. I’m also a big fan of Rico’s smooth and fluid hooping and was happy to see he had a solo section in the routine.

After a brief technical hitch Will Streatfeild took to the stage. His act showcased a new juggling technique Will calls collisions where one ball is used to collide with another ball in the air, changing it trajectory. Will also ran a couple of workshops in this area and it’ll be interesting to see where people take this new idea.

There was only one poi act in the Gala and there are not many poi spinners I would rather watch than Keith Marshall. Keith is well-known for pushing the boundaries of poi and his act served to show he’s not finished breaking new ground. There was some two-poi work in Keith’s act but that’s sooo 2011. Picking up a third poi Keith moved seamlessly from using all three in his hands including patterns involving Supermans and Superman variations to poi juggling and back again. The climax of his act saw Keith flash a four poi juggling pattern. I know Keith has been working on five poi juggling so Play might need a taller big top next year.

Closing the first half of the Gala was another performer all the way from California, Aileen Lawlor. With a background in acting and dance, Aileen is one of the few (but increasing) number of contact staff spinners who is actually making art with their performances rather than just a choreographed demonstration of tricks. Aileen’s act was very expressive but still full of well executed, technical tricks.

Getting us back in the mood after the interval was Circus Space graduate, Matt Green. Matt is firmly in the new school style of club juggling and his act included blind catches while his hoodie covered his face. Following Matt was Nik Robson-King and his routine “Ghost”. Nik used with a pair of small acrylic s-staffs to create illusions through precise isolations and anti-spin techniques. The only drawback to these props is they sometimes struggled to stand out against the background.

Joris and Simone, who are two fifths of Shake That, performed their duo piece, “Just a Habit”. The two shot-swilling friends busted out tricks, comedy and choreography that was reminiscent in style and quality to their full show. The penultimate act was another familiar face, Guilliame Cousson as “Riuchi”. Guilliame’s act was glow-based again but this time he spun programmed glow poi.

Tony Pezzo. Copyright: Sandy McClureHeadlining the Gala was Tony Pezzo. Tony is one of the world’s best jugglers and at only 20 years old there is still much, much more to come from him. Tony is part of Water on Mars, the juggling trio that also features Wes Peden and Patrik Elmnert and who headlined this year’s EJC Gala Show.

Tony’s act was pure ring juggling tech heaven! He started by running six rings for quite a few minutes, all the while with a seventh ring around his neck. As the music built toward a break the entire audience were held in suspense waiting for the seventh ring to be included. But, as the music peaked most of the rings were discarded and Tony continued juggling with just three. I very much enjoyed this little surprise – Tony held the six ring build up for an almost uncomfortably long time – and I’m a fan of the intentional drops also used frequently in Water on Mars. Tony then smashed out an awesome act and didn’t disappoint by doing the seven rings before the act was over.

Play is a festival rather than a convention so as well as the shows there is plenty of other entertainment, some of it spontaneously put on by the festival goers themselves. One of my favourite moments was, literally, jumping through hoops on the Thursday night. Varying numbers and sizes of hula hoop were held up for people to dive roll through on to a crash mat. The queue for this game soon built and it went on for hours!

Jim Bazley. Copyright: Sandy McClure

But wait, there’s more. Play has always had superb live bands and this year was no different. Thingumabob and the Thingumajigs, “Salford’s finest moustachioed vaudeville band”, got everyone swinging and rocking after the fire show on Friday. Then on Saturday Cut Capers, a live Hip-hop/Ska 8-piece from Bristol and Cardiff blew the roof off the Big Top on Saturday. There was even a mosh pit!

Last, and probably least, was the Renegade. Last year’s Renegade is fairly legendary (I missed it because Renegades are usually disappointing) so this year had a tough act to follow. Due to Natty Lunatrick compering the Gala, Swindon’s finest, Jake the Juggler, had to step in at the last minute to try to tame the beast that is Renegade.

Jake did a grand job and the Renegade went down a treat. As to be expected there was some drinking involved and a wee bit of nudity but this gave rise to the world’s fastest life drawing that was then auctioned off for the princely sum of £11 which was donated to Performers Without Borders.

The purpose of the “love” tag was also revealed at the Renegade and Rowan was called onto the stage. Last year everyone spontaneously ran onto stage to give Duncan (Play’s organiser) a huge group hug. This so touched Duncan he wanted someone else to feel the love so a “love” tag was hidden among the Play passes. You didn’t need to tell the Play crowd twice and within seconds Rowan was engulfed by scores of people in a huge cuddle puddle. I have my suspicions that Rowan would have probably preferred the group hug at the beginning of the festival rather than the last night. It would have possibly been a little less sweaty and a little less smelly.

Play and all its playees; you are beautiful creatures. Each year you get better and better and I’m already counting the days until next year’s event.

We will be announcing any updates about Play 2014 in our news section but you can also keep abreast of news and discussions on the Play website and Facebook page.

Photos used by kind permission of:

- Sandy McClure. Check out his photography business, Love in Focus.

- Alex Morris

- Ben Kermode

For a great selection of videos of the acts at this year's Play check out this You Tube playlist.