The tide is high for theatre festival

During the last five years the HighTide Festival, an event devoted to developing new theatre talent, has swiftly garnered for itself an impressive reputation for uncovering first rate new writers.

The festival, which launched in Halesworth in 2007, has sent award-winning new plays both to London and to The Edinburgh Festival.

It’s a measure of how rapidly the Festival has developed – and how well regarded it is – that it was one of two new Suffolk additions to the Arts Council’s list of regularly funded organisations. Regional director Helen Lax said that they were particularly impressed with the Festival’s knack of nurturing talented young writers and then showcasing their work to widespread audiences, not only in Suffolk, but across the country.

For artistic director Steven Atkinson, this philosophy, that plays developed at HighTide had a life beyond the festival, was an integral part of their ethos.

Among the plays which have gathered glowing reviews and gone on to attract widespread audiences are Stovepipe, I Caught Crabs in Walberswick and Ditch – while Lidless is currently playing in London.

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This year was always going to be special for the HighTide organisers because for the first time they are expanding the festival from a long weekend into a two week showcase. Steven said that although they had applied for Arts Council funding they had no idea they were going to be successful and so it is entirely coincidence that the new expanded festival coincides with their new National Portfolio status.

“It was very strange on Wednesday as the results of the funding review were announced. It felt like we were in the middle of an election with all the results coming in and winners and losers being announced.

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“It was very rare for the world at large to give its entire focus on the arts for a day. It really did feel like we were witnessing a moment in time.”

He is understandably delighted that HighTide has been recognised by Britain’s official arts funders. “It means a huge amount to us and for what we want to do but it was also a very sad day because lots of friends lost their funding and I am thinking particularly of The Poetry Trust here. They did tremendous work, so it was a very bittersweet day.”

He said that, with more than 640 organisations being funded nationwide, it was disappointing that only just over 30 companies were supported in the eastern region, an area with the fourth largest population.

“It is quite extraordinary that as an area we don’t have more funding or more of a profile. I think it is crazy that we as a county are grossly neglected by the national arts media, which is madness really given our close proximity to the capital. I think all arts organisations in Suffolk are going to have to work harder to be noticed, to raise our profile and to say to the country: ‘Look there is a lot of great work being carried out in Suffolk. It’s a very creative county.

“If you look at Gecko, they are an outstanding company, a creative company par excellence. They create the work here and then send it out around the country. If you look at HighTide I feel we are greater than the sum of our parts. We have certainly been prolific with the shows that we have developed and the people we have worked with and I think that has attracted attention.”

This year HighTide has gone from a four day weekend to two full weeks and will launch four new plays on the theatre world rather than the usual three.

Steven said that the thinking behind the change was simple: “In previous years we have been very nervous about people reviewing our work because the plays have had such a short run. They haven’t really had enough time to settle in before people see them. That’s problematic simply because we are working with young talent who are still learning and realising how to control their talent which is something you get through previewing a play.

“We have been denying the possibility of a review because of fear really and we came to the realisation that you just have to jump in the deep end. We thought by adding a fourth play to the repertoire and a second weekend, we can invite a lot more people, attract larger audiences, and have an official review day on May 7.”

Steven is hopeful that these changes will not only put HighTide more firmly on the theatre map but will be good for Halesworth and Suffolk because it adds to the county’s cultural reputation.

This year’s plays are Nicked, a new musical by Richard Marsh and composed by Natalia Sheppard aka Rogue Nouveau; Midnight Your Time by HighTide award-winning writer Adam Brace; Dusk Rings A Bell by Stephen Belber and Incoming by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.

Steven said that this year’s line-up provides a great deal of diversity. It includes a new rap musical satire on the coalition government, a one woman play with Diana Quick and Andrew Motion’s first play.

“This is the most diverse line-up we have ever staged and we have already secured other performance slots elsewhere for three of the plays. Andrew Motion’s play Incoming is going to be performed at Latitude later in the summer, while Midnight Your Time with Diana Quick and Dusk Rings A Bell have already been confirmed as going up to the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh and when that finishes Dusk Rings A Bell is going to the Oxford Palace for a few performances.”

He said that as HighTide improves each year, theatres elsewhere are more confident in their work and their reputation has been bolstered further by the support given by the Arts Council.

In the past the fact that theatres around the country have never heard of the writer nor the play before has been a hurdle to their future. But as HighTide’s reputation and profile grow then producers start to trust the work emerging from the festival and are keener to help uncover new talent. Who knows, the next Alan Bennett or David Hare may emerge from the HighTide Festival.

Writers like Joel Horwood, Adam Brace, Nick Payne and Beth Steel are already getting national attention.

Nick Payne, who premiered Switzerland at the HighTide Festival in 2008, won the George Devine Award immediately afterwards and has subsequently staged work at London’s Royal Court Theatre and is currently working at the Young Vic. The Leiston-born Joel Horewood, who delivered I Caught Crabs In Walberswick, for HighTide in 2008, is also on the national radar as a young writer to watch.

“As pleasing as it is to see our plays being performed in London, in Edinburgh, I think there is always something special seeing these plays being unveiled for the first time in Halesworth at the festival. You can see all of them side-by-side and you get a sense of what the company is trying to do. Also it’s a wonderfully informal experience. In between shows all the actors, writers and directors are all hanging out in the cafe in The Cut, you can go up to them and have chat and you don’t get that when the plays move onto London or elsewhere.”

He said that as the festival continues to grow then the legitimacy of the work grows. This added maturity is also reflected in the fact that publishers like Faber and Methuen were now happy to publish play scripts of works unveiled at HighTide. “I think there was this feeling in the early days that the legitimacy of the Festival hadn’t been earned yet. People didn’t really know what we were about and now that we have been going for five years and people have a feel for what we do, and for the first time this year, HighTide has turned into something that I always hoped it would be, something like Chichester Festival Theatre.

“I think that the Arts Council deciding that we are worthy of public subsidy is a big part of earning that legitimacy.”

Steven believes that he and those toiling away behind the scenes have also grown with their experiences over the past years. He says that they too are developing a knowledge of what people go for and have adapted the way that they choose plays. Although they still look at new submissions from emerging playwrights they are now looking to develop ongoing relationships with some key writers like Adam Brace and offer experienced writers like Andrew Motion an opportunity to do something different – to work outside their comfort zone.

“I think we have become less precious about who is writing work for us. I think as the festival has developed and we have gained access to different types of artists, then this was a great opportunity to bring some fantastic people to Halesworth. Andrew Motion is a great example. Andrew has never written a play before and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss when I was talking to Naomi Jaffa of The Poetry Trust and we got in contact with Andrew and he hasn’t written a verse play but has written a straight play but with a poetic quality.

“It’s not about the language per se, it’s about the dramatic dive coming from a character.”

Diana Quick brings some star quality and real stage presence to her one-woman play Midnight Your Time about a mother talking to her daughter by web-cam. We see the play from Judy, the mother’s point of view. She is in Islington while her daughter is in Palestine.

Adam Brace’s previous play Stovepipe, premiered at HighTide, was named as one of The Sunday Times’ Ten Best Theatre Productions of the Decade. “Both Incoming and Midnight Your Time, both feel like quite mature works, so I think audiences are in for a treat.”

But, the production which already has got many people talking is Nicked, political rap musical. Steven said it is designed to be a joyous theatrical event while also bringing the stage musical into the 21st century.

“Nicked is going to be terrific. It’s a modern-day equivalent of Guys and Dolls which is on at the Wolsey at the moment. It’s the story of the coalition government. We have billed it as politics you can dance to and that’s exactly what the show is about. It’s posh white men rapping. I think the style of it, is very much what the modern musical is going to be like.

“It’s our most produced show. There’s lots of neon and lasers and it’s an interesting mix of the old form of musical theatre and cutting edge fashion and youth culture. And there’s also talk of politics. It’s got everything and the scale of it is huge. It’s the biggest thing we have ever done at the festival. It’s an absolute monster.”

n HighTide Festival at The Cut, Halesworth runs from April 28- May 8. More details and online booking can be found at

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