Could there be any better way for Brighton to throw a summer party than by piling all the city’s best musicians, entertainers and performers on a bus and carting them off to a remote field? Evoking a giant eccentric birthday party, Playgroup has progressed from eclectic club nights to a full-on festival in the sticks, and we’re pleased it has.
Umbrella-twirling, moustache-twiddling, tweed-clad foxes tango with 50s pin-up girls, toddlers in ladybird outfits sway behind yoga instructors in neon leotards, different beats pulsate from every direction, and the choice of entertainment is all-enveloping. The main arena has a wonky circle of stages, tents, food stalls and bars, each reminiscent of the opened-up sitting rooms of friendly strangers, illuminated with fairy lights and with a DJ in every corner. The second arena, by the camping area, is a slightly calmer and more family-friendly space, with pop-up cinemas, tea and cake, a bonfire which prevails despite the weather, charity face-painting for Kua and a plethora of workshops for the youngest attendees. The site itself is a countryside idyll, with rolling hills and scenic lakes surrounded by lush greenery, spotted with florescent portaloos and water tanks.
Musical highlights included Derriere on the Hive stage, delivering a rabble-rousing rockabilly set to making everyone forget about the drizzle and DJ Format’s all-encompassing funk set in the Burrow Stage, watched by face-painted revellers lounging on Bedouin cushions. Hint’s late afternoon set on Saturday got the crowd ready to dance into the early hours and the Kung Fu tent catered to those still up when the main stages closed. The Lizard Stage was worth a trip at any time, serving gigantic vegetarian breakfasts to early birds and brandy coffee and acoustic jams to night owls. Samuel J, who blends hip-hop with easy acoustic funk and catchy loops, is someone to look out for back in the real world.
It’s not just about the music: the Forest of Thoughts offered a rotation of magic acts, thought-provoking talks, comedy and poetry as well as a respite from the rain and the opportunity to quaff one’s beer from atop a plastic seat. The juxtaposition of well-intended ethical gardening advice with whimsical pieces on the history of jelly and macabre drawing classes gave an unpredictable sense to proceedings, which fitted the environment perfectly
Everyone’s invited to be as involved in the festival as they like, and the allocation of a fancy-dress animal to each ticket worked well, though with a disproportionate number of foxes and too few toads. The badger clan win the award for scariest-faces-in-the-dark and props are due to most of the hares for avoiding the Playboy bunny route. Notable rebels included a unicorn, a penguin and an elephant dancing merrily about with forest chums. Many of the musicians playing are from Brighton, as are the majority of attendees. If you’re familiar with the city, you’ll recognise many of Brighton’s qualities and talents in Playgroup – the inclusive atmosphere, the refusal to raise an eyebrow at outrageous behaviour, the unquenchable enthusiasm, the exuberant performances and the general showing off. Even the buses, eco-fuelled and littered with empty Red Stripe cans, are run by a local company. Cheaper, more grass-roots and less commercial than its contemporaries Bestival and Shambala, Playgroup offers an encouraging and warm environment in which to forget the day job. Playgroup is all the fun of a microcosmic Brighton summer, squashed into three days.
As for criticism, the set times and orders varied considerably from those listed in programmes and stuck to walls. However, if you can accept that this adds to the spontaneity and fluttery chaos to which the festival pertains, it’s possible to relax, forget about a plan and enjoy whatever’s happening in front of you. The portaloos may have been Glastonbury-level vile on Friday night, but this was swiftly rectified. Refreshingly free from £5 beers, over-zealous security, relentless queues and fairy wings, Playgroup Festival reflects a genuine quest for fun – not forced jollity, but an honest crusade for good times, and a commitment to delivering exciting, diverse acts to ensure everyone’s equally enthralled. A paradisiacal playground in which all are welcome to play.
PLAYGROUP FESTIVAL 2011
ERIDGE PARK, 5th – 7th AUGUST