Review: Just So Festival

Antonia Charlesworth ventures into the woods at this family arts festival in Cheshire

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A brief window of sunshine on Friday afternoon lulled campers into a false sense of security at what was to be a very wet seventh annual Just So Festival.

Set in the grounds of Cheshire’s Rode Hall country house, this family arts festival, offering more than you could possibly fit into one weekend, has built a solid reputation among families, with many returning for their third or fourth time in 2016.

As a first timer it is easy to feel like a tourist and it’s worth getting your head around the tribal theme of the festival before you arrive.

Families are encouraged to align themselves with foxes, fish, frogs, stags, lions or owls, reflected in a huge array of elaborate homemade fancy dress outfits. Despite this crafts are a low priority on the Just So programme and a craft tent where unprepared festival goers could make their own costumes to join a tribe would have been a welcome addition.

Mystery is an ongoing theme in the extravagant festival, where imaginations run wild

Beyond participating in mass activities such as sports day and a pillow fight on the Village Green, it remains somewhat of a mystery to me how participants collect points in the ongoing tribal tournament before taking part in the Wild Rumpus Parade on Sunday evening, where the winning tribe is announced. But mystery is an ongoing theme in the extravagant festival, where imaginations run wild.

A hidden path near the woodland theatre in the Spellbound Forest is the setting for the Wild Rumpus Private Detective Agency, in which children collect clues to solve dastardly goings-on. Games of Eye Spy, Spy Science and Wink Murder added to the feeling you were being let into a wonderful secret.

There are tons of activities requiring less brainpower or effort however. Campfire stories from Ian Douglas in the Spellbound Forest were a recurrent hit. The storyteller encouraged audience members to take part in his magical tales, which incorporated simple science experiments and music, all told out of his tiny bowtop gypsy wagon.

Along a similar theme, on the Village Green, was Highly Sprung Performance Co’s Travelling Treasury, an immersive storytelling performance set in a caravan beautifully transformed with recycled book pages that proved a captivating experience for children and adults alike.

Next door the Last Post Letter Writing Emporium – a mobile sorting office – found Kilter Theatre Company introducing children to snail mail by writing letters to real life pen pals, while the neighbouring book tent offered a host of activities throughout the weekend. A reading of The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan offered a welcome respite for young children on Saturday afternoon before the author provided insight into the book’s Syrian setting and an illustrating workshop. The book tent was also the setting for the traditional Just So midnight feast later that night.

A stone’s throw away the Big Top offered simple activities such as hula-hooping, diabolo and plate spinning continuously, as well as guided lessons in trapeze and stilt walking and various performances. Similarly there was such an array of activities at the Spellbound Forest, from wand making, willow weaving and bee keeping to tiny puppet shows to be viewed by one or two children at a time, that it was difficult to move far beyond the entrance to the festival.

Campfire stories kept children enthralled
Campfire stories kept children enthralled

Venturing deeper into the woods paid off however with two theatre stages. Tales of Animalia was hosted by the Fabularium, which has become a staple of family festivals. Having seen the Coventry-based children’s theatre company perform its Town Band of Bremen show at both Cloudspotting 2015 and Geronimo 2016, it was a welcome change to watch the ensemble cast deliver its adaptation of The Hare & The Tortoise on Saturday afternoon. Complete with original music and fabulous costumes the Fabularium managed to captivate an audience packed in on the soggy ground of the woodland.

At the Woodland Stage audience members finally gave in to the elements and used muddy banks as extra seating to squeeze into the small area and watch musical storyteller Ursula Holden Gill perform How Monkey Found His Swing. Set to live jazz from a three-piece band it was an energetic half hour full of audience participation, which proved sometimes difficult in a sea of muddy wellies. Occasions like this, as well as queuing for showers, trying to find a seat for lunch and the family ballet in the Jitterbug tent – which was so oversubscribed many disappointed children were left without a tutu – demonstrated how Just So is outgrowing itself. Organisers may need to provide extra resources in future years.

This was most obvious by the time we finally made it to the High Seas – the furthest point from the festival entrance – to make our lanterns for the evening Lantern Parade, a highlight of the festival led by band Hope & Social. By 3.30pm on Saturday organisers had run out of materials and shut up shop. All was not lost as children happily played in the giant sandpit and sail maze before the heavens opened for the biggest downpour of the weekend and called off any potential rowing boat trip. Instead we headed for the shelter of the Travelling Barn, where Dutch band Zorita managed to entertain a lot of soggy families with their bohemian folk music. Music is not the main focus of Just So Festival but there’s no shortage of it for those who want to make it the focus of their weekend. Those who don’t will still hear plenty in impromptu live sets from the likes of the Bagdaddies on the Village Green.

It was worth the trip back into the arena after drying off back at camp to see Bash Street Theatre perform its live silent film. With falling buildings, daredevil escapology, silent comedy and live music, Cliffhanger told the story of a love-sick waiter who gets mistaken for an escaped convict as he tries to rescue his kidnapped heroine.

Following the performance, Simon Pullum provided a bit of background to the company, made up of his wife, two sons and niece alongside him. The show is new and a late addition to the line-up but a real highlight, with flawless musical accompaniment and daring stunts, so it was a disappointment, considering the £120 early bird weekend ticket price for adults camping, to hear him asking audience members to contribute by buying a poster as they weren’t being paid.

There’s a hefty price tag attached then for a family of four (children cost £45) but under-threes go free and there is a host of activities for babies. Just So also offers a discount to local residents and operates a pay it forward scheme where guest list attendees can donate money, then matched by organisers Wild Rumpus, to pay for service users of the Gingerbread Project, who work with local homeless single parent families, to attend.

There is a clear distinction between festivals claiming to be family friendly and others, such as those of the Northern Festivals Network, that are truly designed for families without being solely focused on children’s activities. Just So is leading the way in these stakes and it’s obvious why people return year-on-year.
Early bird tickets for Just So Festival 2017 (18-20 August, Rode Hall Estate, Cheshire) are on sale at justsofestival.org.uk at special early bird prices of £120 (adults), £45 (child) for weekend camping, £70 (adult), £25 (child) for two-day non-camping, £40 (adult), £15 (child) for day tickets. Under-threes free.

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