Review: Just So Festival, Rode Hall, Cheshire
The average Just So parent, judging by appearances, is of approximately the correct vintage for Glastonbury 1997 to be a resonant pop culture reference. Which is why that mud-sodden welcome to the Blair years, known to all who squelched through it as the ‘Year of the Mud’, was the comparison on many a lip as the rain pelted down relentlessly throughout day one of Just So’s 10th birthday event.
As the beautiful grounds of Rode Hall descended into an oozing morass of churned-up earth, festival-goers – already subdivided into one of seven animal groups for the signature Tribal Tournament – split into two further teams. Team A could loosely be labelled as ‘wailing four-year-olds in anoraks’ while Team B equated to ‘grimly optimistic grown-ups, plying their offspring with hot chocolate and attempting to convince themselves as much as the children that it will be sunny tomorrow’. Team B was right. About 8.30am on Saturday, a first glimpse of sun was greeted by a stoical cheer that rippled like a Mexican wave across the campsite. It continued to shine for the rest of Wild Rumpus’s creative and diverse family arts festival. By then however, Rain and its tenacious sidekick, Mud, had already firmly established themselves as the most-discussed act of the weekend.
All this must have been deeply frustrating for the small and committed team who have grown Just So over the past decade into a stylishly curated, high-class three-day celebration of dance, music, drama and nature. Rowan Hoban and Sarah Bird, its founders, for whom the festival is evidently a labour of love, were in tears on stage by Sunday night as they thanked their volunteers and the tractor drivers who’d been enlisted to drag stranded cars out of the bogged car parking fields. Those car parks had been closed on safety grounds since Saturday, meaning that some ticket holders couldn’t make it to the festival; costly for the not-for-profit production outfit Wild Rumpus, and sad for those who missed out.
Much of what they missed they might well have seen before. Just So is something of a club, both in terms of audience and performers, and many of the regular acts were in fine, if damp, fettle. Storyteller Ian Douglas again bewitched the young children around the forest campfire, while folk-ish singer David Gibb launched his new album but played mostly firm Just So singalong favourites such as Teddy at the Disco. The standard list of bands with daft names – Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers; Thingumabob and the Thingumajigs – had welly-clad audiences joining in choruses about David Attenborough and why “Everybody loves Runcorn”, while the Sunday night parade saw hundreds of glorious, imaginative fancy dress outfits assemble in the swamp-like main field for a last hurrah that saw the Fox tribe declared this year’s winners and a bunch of children finally explode with sensory overload.
There were some great new additions. In haste, they included an orchard fire garden; a world premiere of the Fabulariam’s three-person play The Hare and the Moon; the powerful all-female acrobatics of Lifted and a series of raucous Balkan/ gypsy/ ska-style musical ensembles. If there were quibbles in the toilet queue they were about the lack of a post-lanterns finale to the Saturday that in 2018 came in the form of an incredible moonlit tightrope walk, and about the minimalist provision of sinks (gone from where we camped last year, replaced only by a hose) and showers on the campsite, which were shown up somewhat by the mud-bath. But there are always gripes in the toilet queue at festivals. One can only imagine the moaning at Glastonbury 1997.
Far more often overheard were exchanges of mud-based solidarity between erstwhile strangers (I’ve got wet wipes/ Do you need some dry socks?/ Just get them an ice cream and it will be fine…) and an affection for, and loyalty to, Just So. That warmth is a big part of its magic.
Main image: Outside the Flamingo Lounge, Just So 2019, credit Samuel Mills.
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