Hat’s entertainment – clowning around at Winchester Hat Fair

9 Jul

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One thing you need to know about Winchester Hat Fair: it’s not, strictly speaking, about hats. The Milliners Guild – the representative body for the hat-making industry – runs a number of fine events, but Winchester Hat Fair is not one of them.

Winchester Hat Fair is, in fact, the UK’s longest running festival of street theatre, comedy and music. It’s called the Hat Fair because, essentially, it’s a busking festival – all of the acts are paid by the crowd, who (hopefully) throw money into their hats at the end of a performance. This is called ‘hatting’.

So, there are hundreds of free events (well, free if you have no conscience) alongside a handful of ticketed spectaculars, one of which French company Generik Vapeurs’ very exciting sounding new Waterlitz show, including an explosive display of pyrotechnics (ooh!), breath-taking aerial stunts (gasp!) and a 30m high giant made of shipping containers (aah!), was… cancelled due to the bad weather.

Still, plenty more going on – the town centre was taken over by dozens of acts on Friday and Saturday, while on Sunday the fun moved to Oram’s Arbour, a lovely park at the top of town, which is where Festival Chronicle (still feeling a bit tired and soggy from Avebury Rocks the night before) spent a few delightful hours.

Okay, the first half an hour of our visit was actually spent in a pub down the road, sheltering from a downpour, but when we got to the park we discovered Australian Avon Lady Yvonne had bottled some sunshine and brought it with her to the UK.

Funny, sassy and crass in the way only Australians can pretend to be when playing up to their national stereotype, Kate Wright had a large crowd in stitches with her character Yvonne, a Beautician on a Mission, in her show Ding Dong Yvonne Calling.

Hula hooping, juggling and dancing while demonstrating a new range of cosmetics – “Ask me why?” she’d demand, and then reply in a purr “because you’re worth it!” – Yvonne turned clumsiness and ineptitude into an art form.

And she played up to Festival Chronicle’s cameraman – “check these babies out,” she challenged, squeezing her biceps, so extra marks for that.

Also via Australia, but originally from Philadelphia, and also playing up to the Festival Chronicle camera – it must be our long lens that impresses ’em – was Arizona Jones, Indiana’s wise-cracking, magic tricking, snake-knot-tying second cousin in-law once removed and substitute porn star stunt double.

In his satirical tribute Indiana Jones, comedian Tim Motley channelled the spirit of the dashing movie archaeologist to perform what he insisted were some of the world’s most dangerous stunts.

They weren’t, of course, but they were tricky enough, and like Kate Wright’s beautician it takes real talent to seem as crap as Arizona Jones. The way he didn’t leap effortlessly onto the top of a ten-foot pole, choosing instead to clamber over a a couple of volunteers plucked from the audience, would have had the crowd rolling in the aisles, had aisles been provided.

He got up there, juggled flaming torches and then performed his much-awaited grand finale, extinguishing a blazing whip by cracking it in the air, all the while cracking one-liner after one-liner, his history as a stand-up comedian in evidence.

There were more Aussie antics on the other side of the park, where wannabe gangster Mr Vita, from Las Cossas Nostra, was demonstrating his seduction technique (single out a lady in the crowd, gesticulate obscenely, then jump on them) and how to deal with toddlers who stray into your performance area. He tried growling and showing his claws, and when that didn’t work he resorted to boxing, which did the trick.

Meanwhile his co-gangster Mia Milne was testing her own pulling technique – leap into a man’s arms and get him stagger off with you. It proved to be a very effective way of obtaining volunteer stooges.

The couple (he from Spain, she the Aussie) mixed circus skills and slapstick comedy to engaging effect.

According to their biog, they met at clown school learning, among other things, buffoonery. So this is the job a diploma in buffoonery nets you? I always thought it was Mayor of London.


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