Hat Fair – the UK’s longest-running festival of Outdoor Arts – returned to Winchester once again and huge audiences filled the city’s streets and green spaces to enjoy a packed programme of family-friendly circus, dance, music, comedy, theatre and more.
The festivities began on Friday 30 June with circus and hula hooping from Mr Banana and Angie Mack – who drew in early crowds despite the slightly damp weather conditions. The first of the Hatters – busking performers that the festival is named after; there followed ukulele playing amid acrobatic stunts with Barada Street and whisk juggling and unicycling antics with Risky Business.
At midday the musical walkabouts began with the Big Gay Disco Bike duo teaching audiences dance routines to popular disco tracks; Gobbledegook Theatre stopped passersby to request and play their favourite guilty pop pleasures; while the Serving Sounds bar captivated the masses with the brothers behind it playing Fat Boy Slim simply by touching objects on the bar, like a wine glass or beer mat.
The public lined the cathedral grounds and the high street as The New Carnival Company’s enormous Lady Justice puppet and Playmakers Junk Giant headed the Carnival of hundreds of local schoolchildren dressed in costume and shouting about topics close to them including the environment; and joined by community groups including Blue Apple and St John’s Almshouses.
Following the parade, Hat Fair director Andrew Loretto welcomed everyone to stay and watch Skiing Odyssey, which saw three hilarious ‘skiers’ darting about and squirting water at everyone; and Tape That involving two acrobats creating items with duct tape like a toilet, clothes, birds and DJ decks.
This year the Without Walls festival network-supported shows included – as well as Big Gay Disco Bike and Serving Sounds – Family Catwalk Extravaganza whereby four male performers danced and lip-synced to well-known songs, including Baby Shark, for the audience’s vote; and Ancient Futures, combining West African folklore with dance, striking costumes and masks, on a giant stage. While on the Saturday, young children swarmed to A La Puppet Carte – four charming miniature theatres transported on the puppeteers’ bicycles; and the beautiful dancers of Mughal Miniatures dressed in intricately decorated saris for a performance inspired by traditional Indian and Persian paintings.
Day two also saw sunshine and Winchester swell with even larger audiences enjoying yet more shows from the previous day’s acts, plus hatting from Jon Hicks with giant artworks of legendary singers, clown skills and balloon animals from Herbie Treehead, and magic from Richard Kimberly; while Seve Feathers’ Fleeting saw a female dancer covered in chalk exploring the human experience.
Across the two days there were also shows from Playmakers Youth Theatre exploring subjects such as consequence and extinction; and from local performers including Ukrainian singers, a wheelchair dance group, from the Winchester-based historical attraction, 878AD, and more; plus works in progress from University of Winchester students in the Top Hat showcase.
Festival-goers could enjoy crazy golf and screen printing, a Brazilian style micro puppet theatre, a hot air balloon exhibiting local young people’s artwork exploring mental health, and children’s entertainer and Hat Fair veteran, Juggling Jake.
Hat Fair concluded with Gobbledegook Theatre’s High Priestess of Pop and the Disco Druids and The Hush Club DJs playing more audience favourites to partygoers on The Broadway outside the iconic Winchester Guildhall late into Saturday night.
This year Hat Fair ran for just two days because in November the charity behind the festival – Play to the Crowd – learnt that it would no longer be funded by Arts Council England (ACE) as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) – despite a glowing assessment of its application.
Fortunately, the charity was successful in their applications for alternative sources of funding to enable this year’s festival to go ahead, albeit in a smaller way (no performances on Sunday).
The organisers would like to thank for their support – Winchester City Council, Arts Council England (ACE), Hampshire County Council, University of Southampton, University of Winchester and Winchester BID. Plus, from Hampshire County Council, Cllr Tod, Cllr Irish and Cllr Warwick for their support of the Hat Fair Carnival, and to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund for supporting Gobbledegook Theatre and the Hush Club at Hat Fair.