With festival season heavily hit by the cascade of Covid cancellations the summer staples of theatre and music have fallen into a graveyard almost as distant as Woodstock itself. So you can imagine the anticipation of my companion and I, like two lost friends in a crowded festival field, as we wandered through St Ann’s Well Gardens seeking out the main stage for The Spirit of Woodstock. Something Underground, who are local to the area, promise to resurrect the Summer of ‘69 out of the mud of a summer filled with the threat of Coronavirus.
Turning the corner into a small, self contained section of the gardens we are met by a few socially distanced clusters of audience having comfortably set up camp with blankets and picnics – some even looking suitably ‘hippy’. With a small, prop-cluttered scaffold stage towering at the front, this fun-size festival main stage is a lovely use of space.
Echoing around us are newscasts and commercials defining the era and these are laced through with music from a golden age of youthful counterculture which all promise a sharp and relevant theatrical blend of political and pop culture.
However, this turns out to be an unfortunately overly ambitious task for the company’s Covid comeback. Written and performed by Jonathan Brown, I wonder whether a level of collaboration has been neglected in the show’s editing process. Brown’s bold episodic attempt at “around 75 characters in lightning succession” feels disjointed and too long, detailed and literal for a fringe show designed to distill the ‘spirit’ of an era.
I must say though that aside from a few slips out of various American accents, Brown’s performance and energy is impressive as he owns long and dynamically-written dialogue with lighthearted control and pride. Any particularly strong theatrical moments (like a colourfully nonsensical pitch from a festival dealer, or Susanna’s monologue about “screwing her way to the stars” as she bathes in a Bethel lake) are born almost exclusively from the performance of fictional characters. Perhaps more faith should be had in such creativity, rather than in predictable re-enactments of historical events or characters like Neil Armstrong and Richard Nixon.
Perhaps down to teething problems of the environment, prop, and weather issues there are some awkward moments of nervous joking during fairly politically sensitive moments in the script. Technical difficulties might be forgiven or even unnoticed if the performer doesn’t half break character and explain them. The performance’s pace is hindered when it is clear that it is going to overrun, which it does, by nearly half an hour.
The casting of the audience in the participatory moments of this ‘semi-immersive’ show range tonally from a clever observational moments during the Apollo 11 launch, to an enjoyable dance section that came too unfortunately late to re-energise the crowd. But there are more tasteless moments such as the casting of giggling spectators as victims of police brutality.
All of this leaves me feeling almost as drained as I do after three or four nights in a rain-battered tent, but with a less affectionate type of post-festival blues. With some more refining and rehearsal Jonathan Brown’s The Spirit of Woodstock could be a fine tribute to the free festival spirit at a time when it is missed so dearly.
The Spirit of Woodstock is playing St Ann’s Well Gardens until the 27th September. For information and tickets, see the Brighton Fringe website.