live review // Night Watch Festival at Cambridge Junction
words // Lisa Buckby
The Cambridge Junction is often renowned for its all-night parties, but I’m pretty sure that Saturday 14th June was the first time that J1 played host to a massive dormitory rather than a sound system. Nor were the punters the usual dance music crowd, but instead a modestly sized but dedicated throng of performance art and theatre fanatics. Night Watch Festival ran from noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday, and was a test of endurance for the audience, performers and staff alike, with performances and installations programmed in various spaces of the venue throughout the day and night.
I went alone, and with this independence, was determined to make it through the whole thing until midday on Sunday. Despite a few moments of confused sleep exhaustion, I luckily managed to experience most of what Night Watch had to offer, including a very brief nap in the tranquil J1 ‘Crash Zone’.
The first performance I saw was by all-female five-piece, Figs in Wigs. They have their very own eccentric uniform, and are rarely seen without their Frida Kahlo-esque painted on monobrows. As they put it, ‘We, Object’ was a bold piece both about objectification and also not about objectification at the same time. The show had a really defined shape to it and some excellent comedy moments in the form of wordplay and frequently revisits to the refrain, “this isn’t a piece about small things”.
Simultaneously and for the first five hours of Night Watch, Action Hero performed their durational piece, ‘Slap Talk’ in J3, a monumental stream of consciousness read by performers Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse from an autocue into camera. Relatively simple in terms of tech, the piece left room for the big topics to breathe – global politics, war and disease – all reeled off in a relentless verbal battle of wills between the duo. They had a way of creating such a tense atmosphere, the autocue rolling on infinitely and each performer hurling long spiteful monologues of trains of thought at the other.
‘Throb’ by Panic Lab was another performance from a male-female duo, this time in the form of a dance piece. I’m not usually uncomfortable with nudity or intimacy in performance, but the combination of nurse and patient hospital clothes and the relationship between the performers made me slightly unsure of what the piece was trying to achieve. Still, the movements were really measured and there was a great flow to the sequences of movement.
And so by 5pm it was the right time to get onto the hard spirits, and this came in the form of a jar (with a screw on lid) of gin and tonic, which was distributed to the audience as part of Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s, ‘A Conversation’. In this piece, we as audience members were also carefully schooled in etiquette, whilst Nigel Barrett walked around the stage downing large quantities of whiskey. Newly lubricated, the group and the overall atmosphere began to settle ready for a long evening and morning.
In case you weren’t aware, Night Watch Festival replaces what used to be SAMPLED Festival, and the main differences are that Night Watch shows finished work rather than works in progress, and also aims to programme more of a fun pop-culture event rather than a high-brow scratch performance weekend. Aiding to this feel, the festival was compered throughout the 24 hours by Jen and Lucy from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN (read a recent review here) in their spangly red party dresses. Having previously been quite literally ‘exposed’ to what makes this bizarre pair tick, I was able to find humour in Jen’s deadpan insults and Lucy’s terrible gags and brazen warbling, and as time went on, started to feel more fond of them than baffled.
At the final SAMPLED Festival last year, we saw the rough version of Sleepwalk Collective’s ‘Karaoke’, a show where a man and a woman stand in front of a screen, and read as if they are singing in a karaoke bar. This show made a reappearance this weekend, with a weightier feel to the themes of love and longing, but the duo aren’t wrong when they describe the piece as catatonically deadpan, gratuitously vapid and gleefully strung out. It was only programmed at 7pm, but due to the slow pace of the show, I could have been ready for a night cap right then.
‘My Son and Heir’ was a touching piece by Search Party, a theatre group and couple who plan to grow old together and document it with live performance. This piece in particular was about the birth of their son in the same year as the birth of Prince George, heir to the throne. I admired this work for how down to earth it was and the real honesty of the performers in giving away so much about their lives in order to entertain and but also be thought provoking.
The highlight for me of the 24 hours was Christopher Brett Bailey’s performance of ‘THIS IS HOW WE DIE’. For most of the performance Chris sat in front of a desk and read a cinematically descriptive account of a sprawling and surreal on-off relationship between the narrator and his “sort-of girlfriend”. The way the story was told was so gripping and darkly funny that the whole of the audience came out of the performance buzzing. We also came out of J2, ears buzzing due to an exceptionally loud but hugely powerful finale consisting of a soundscape performed by a group of guitarists and violinists.
It seems hard to cast our minds back now, but there was one stage this summer, where the nation, full of hope and pride joined together for the first of the England World Cup games, versus Italy. Amazingly, this clashed exactly with the very middle of Night Watch, arching over midnight from 11pm to 1am. But instead of ignoring this, it was programmed in with performer Kim Noble representing England and Richard DeDominici representing Italy as commentators for the match. Whilst there were some streaming problems and a bit of a lack of knowing what the hell was going on, it was a unifying moment for festival-goers, and even sparked a bit of a kick around outside at half time.
After a couple of beers during the match I was beginning to wonder how I would either continue to stay a) sober enough to watch all of these shows, or, b) awake enough to watch shows for the next 11 hours so I took a rain-check on a game of Capture the Flag and scarpered to J1 for a bit of a nap. The mattresses provided were surprisingly comfortable and I spent about an hour of dozing in under my coat, before my alarm woke up someone who was snoozing next to me. Embarrassed and confused, I decided to return to the action.
It was an altogether different atmosphere stepping back into J2 this time around. Ann Liv Young was performing ‘Us’, with a lighting setup which felt like floodlights glaring across the room. Suffice to say in this moment of being half asleep and half awake, I remember little of what was going on. I was however, fully woken up by having to run out of the room when Ann and her stage companion decided to start throwing what we all could only imagine was excrement from a bucket. Outside after the show Ann was selling beaded bracelets and badges on a table. I was too perplexed, dazed and wary to go close enough to see what they actually were.
And so we reached 3am and another SHINDIG set in the bill. The wonderful Gaze is Ghost performed with Tom Adams in a beautifully serene and moving soundscape comprising loops and live performance accompanied by a dancer. It was a really rare chance to see something played in the middle of the night which actually felt nocturnal, and the presence of music helped to move everyone towards a calmer yet alert state.
Still feeling slightly foggy from lack of sleep, I felt the need to go outside, and I signed myself up for the 03:48 edition of Sheila Ghelani’s ‘Crepuscular Activity’. A group of 10 or so of us stepped outside for the first time in 15 hours and took a walk out into the city in the hope of spotting an owl or two. No such luck, but at least we managed to stretch our legs and refresh our saturated minds.
When I returned, I headed straight for the ‘Live Art Lock In’. This was definitely the more experimental programming of the festival and included (in no particular order), a performer holding poses of R’n’B album covers for the entire duration of song after song, a Canadian girl who read poems in an unflattering leotard with the most obscene language I’d probably ever bared witness to, a fully naked male performer who tried to “make being ill look sexy”, a pair of ARU students with a performance entitled ‘Fuck Gender’ and three drag performances. I do admire that things got this mad, as we needed this extreme, but I was also quite pleased to come outside at the end and realise that Sainbury’s had opened again.
‘Get Up!’ a morning show by Susannah Hewlett took the form of one of those trashy ‘This Morning’ kind of shows. There was really not a lot of depth to this, but all we needed at that stage was to stay awake whilst breakfast was being prepared.
As if we hadn’t been through enough already, Lemonade and Laughing Gas made us work for breakfast by way of completing an aerobic workout. It has to be said that there wasn’t that much motivation amongst the survivors but we were eventually rewarded for our lame efforts with a hash brown, bacon, egg, and beans sandwich, coffee and juice, but unfortunately no laughing gas.
Newly nourished, I settled into a performance of ‘Woman’s Hour’ by The Anna Williams Trust. The concept of this piece is really interesting – Anna listens to an episode of Woman’s Hour that she hasn’t heard before, and improvises dance simultaneously. There are some superb moments where the abstract movements she is making suddenly link with the chatter from the radio in the most peculiar way. Really stunning.
Deborah Pearson’s ‘The Future Show’ was the culmination of a 24 hour durational writing piece. As she read, she first told us what would happen at the end of her performance, then what we would expect as we walked out of the room and reached the end of the festival. As she gradually moved further forward in time, with this sureness and confidence, she predicted events further and further ahead, but which were equally as believable as those which were about to happen.
But then finally it was over, and time to return to normal life, but not before being awarded a glitzy blue “You Made It!” badge, courtesy of LOW PROFILE and a zine compiled over the 24 hours by John Boursnell. With the final dregs of energy we could summon, we danced, said our goodbyes to our new friends, and I practically crawled back home across Cambridge, having had an experience that I will relive for a long time, and hopefully revisit next year.