River Stage Festival launches with a flourish

River Stage Festival by the National Theatre launched its fourth year with a series of electrifying performances at the Understudy bar on Wednesday, June 6.

Music, comedy, dance and drag performances showcased some of what is in store for the popular, free outdoor festival, officially launching this Friday, June 13.

With the National Theatre’s mission being to be as ‘open, diverse, as collaborative and as national as possible’, the festival aims to present a mixture of dance, theatre and music acts from all over the UK.

Project producer Fran Miller, 31, said: “It’s all about what different artists, organisations or company bring to it.

“Rufus Norris, our artistic director at the NT, is always so keen that it’s about the diversity of what the arts is and making people aware that anything can be for them.

“It’s making sure that people who are just passing by on the South Bank are drawn in by all the things that the arts can be.”

Drag performers Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo, of East London pub and cabaret venue The Glory, kicked off the event with a delightfully flamboyant, exuberant and larger than life singing duet.

The performance had had all the sequins, gravity-defying high heels and sly innuendo one can hope for from a drag show as well as some legitimately impressive, musical theatre-worthy vocals.

The tone shifted entirely with the second act The Manchester Project, an understated comedic performance that delivered self-deprecating humour and biting social commentary, alternating between being a love letter to the North and exploring its dark underbelly.

Freestyle Funk Forum got the audience involved with their hip hop improv act, asking the crowd for prompts and coming up with hilarious, effortless rap and dance performances on the spot.

Cellist Cecilia Bignall then delivered a sound that was entirely unexpected, at times disconcerting in its manic unpredictability and always refreshingly different.

A classically trained musician and self-described ‘music geek’, Bignall is heavily influenced by electronic, avant-garde and jazz music, blending these styles for East London club night and record label Nonclassical.

On performing, Bignall said: “The complete focus on what you’re doing, in a way, it’s quite calming because once you play, there’s so much going on that you can’t really focus on anything else.

“It’s one of the few times in life where I’m 100% focused on a thing.

“Especially with Nonclassical they let the artist be themselves, and I really put myself into the program whereas with a lot of the normal classical things I do, you have to do what everyone is happy to listen to, which tends to be not the crazy stuff that I like doing.”

The final act, in a nod to the family-friendly aspect of the festival, was Mrs H and the Sing-along Band, in an upbeat, energetic pantomime musical performance.

Between presenting the other acts with suitable fanfare, his own performance and engaging back and forth with the audience, Le Gateau Chocolat was the high point of the event.

A River Stage staple, he described his favourite memory of the festival being singing Beauty and the Beast on the South Bank in a blue bathing suit with a baby from the audience in his arms.

On the festival and the importance of its message, Le Gateau Chocolat said: “Without trying to harp on about what diversity is and trying to fulfil diversity quotas: diversity is real life, diversity is a London carriage.

“I live in Brighton so I’m always commuting from here to there: diversity is who I see on my way to work.

“So, without making a fanfare or trying to tick boxes, it just is, so that’s what I think is the importance of this kind of festival, to be representative of who we are.”

What: River Stage Festival by National Theatre
When: June 13 – August 12
Central London
Easily accessible by Underground


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