Thursday 29 February 2024

One of the oldest-established festivals in the UK, the Norfolk & Norwich comes round in the merry month of May.

The giant puppet from L’Homme Debout’s Mo and The Red Ribbon which will roam the streets of Norwich
The giant puppet from L’Homme Debout’s Mo and The Red Ribbon which will roam the streets of Norwich

One of the oldest-established festivals in the UK, the Norfolk & Norwich (running for an astonishing 17 days in the merry month of May from Friday 10th to Sunday 26th) offers a cultural package like no other taking in music, drama, literature, circus, outdoor and family events as well as the all-important visual arts.  

Artists from round the world and across the region will gather in Norwich and, indeed, across the county to present a huge variety of work and events in a programme featuring a host of ‘stories’ providing guided routes through the festival and bringing together shows and events that share common themes.  

For instance, Lucy McCormick’s Lucy and Friends, an anarchic cry for help, subverts the normal dynamic between audience and performer. Sitting in the Whisper & Shout section of a wide and varying programme, the show examines the many different aspects of the way artists speak to an audience. Contrastingly, Memory of Birds, created by Lebanese artist, Tania El Khoury, offers a lulling contemplation about political violence. 

And a ‘street’ spectacular like no other focuses on a giant puppet being paraded throughout Norwich city centre courtesy of French-based company, L’Homme Debout. They’ll be showing off their playful, spectacular and poetic story of Mo and The Red Ribbon as part of the opening Welcome Weekend. Combining giant puppetry and emotional storytelling, the story of Mo explores the experience of migration from a child’s perspective thereby offering an ultimately optimistic look at the world we inhabit and those we share it with. 

This year also witnesses Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Norwich Theatre Royal collaborating on an international celebration of dance and physical theatre. A fulfilling programme of work, curated by both organisations, features Tess by circus company, Ockham’s Razor, a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic tale; a short film by Dan Canham, Fenland Elegy; the UK premières of Rachel Ní Bhraonáin’s high-octane dance theatre, MOSH; Xenia Aidonopoulou’s playful children’s dance show Skydiver and a new collaboration between Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - An Accident / A Life

Festival director, Daniel Brine, had this to say: ‘We’re excited by the depth, democracy and diversity of this year’s programme. There’s an exciting blend of international acts including premières and new commissions. I’m thrilled to bits, too, that we’ve commissioned a new circus show entitled Corazón (‘heart’ in Spanish) from the brilliant and talented South American-based troupe, Circolombia. 

‘Specifically created for the Adnams Spiegeltent in Festival Gardens, the show has a lengthy residency running for 12 days from Wednesday 15th to Sunday 26th May offering audiences breathless acrobatic feats with a distinctive Latin feel complemented by a host of incredible pieces of infectious Latin-flavoured music reflecting the production overall.  

‘Importantly, though, there’s a strong flavour of East Anglia about this year’s festival featuring artists such as Laura Cannell, Molly Naylor and Luke Wright but also with our new community collaborations we’re bringing to the fore the voices of many, many local people.’ 

However, punctuating the festival’s opening weekend, the Aurora Orchestra, under the dynamic leadership of Nicholas Collon, will return to the festival for the first time in seven years performing Beethoven’s third symphony, one of the composer’s most celebrated works marking the beginning of his innovative ‘middle period’. As is their trademark, they’ll be performing the ‘Eroica’ entirely from memory in an intimate concert setting in Norwich Cathedral - Saturday 11th May.  

The festival’s also proud to be welcoming back one of the leading champions of the harpsichord, Mahan Esfahani, joining the Britten Sinfonia to complete their season-long Bach collaboration at St Peter Mancroft Church - Saturday, 25th May. Alongside the complete cycle of Bach’s uplifting and era-defining keyboard concertos, they’ll also perform a programme of Bach’s second orchestral suite (which doubles as a flute concerto) as well as the fifth Brandenburg Concerto in which they’ll be joined by violinist, Jacqueline Shave, a person who’s no stranger to Norwich audiences through her long association with the Britten Sinfonia. 

Also on the opening weekend, Ashley Grote, Master of Music at Norwich Cathedral, will present a unique, meditative performance on the newly rebuilt cathedral organ - Sunday 12th May. One of the largest pipe organs in the country sporting an incredible 5,767 pipes ranging from ten metres to just an inch long, the instrument now harbours a marvellous and exciting sound after being painstakingly restored by world-renowned organ specialists, Harrison & Harrison. Therefore, in a programme devoted to works by Olivier Messiaen, Ashley will play three towering works of the organ repertoire showing Messiaen at his very best in what promises a marvellous and uplifting recital. 

In contrast to Messiaen, Norwich Cathedral will also resound to a different tune and music style with an emotive brand of folk-pop (Saturday, 18th May) featuring Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) whose latest album ‘I DES’ explores a kaleidoscopic musical terrain with vibraphones, accordions, e-bows and samplers. A record breaker, for sure, the King has released over 100 records since his début in the 1990s while his songs have been covered and performed by such luminous artists as Patti Smith and Simple Minds.  

Local (but international) Norwich-born musician, Laura Cannell, also returns to the festival to present the ‘live’ version of her seventh solo album, Antiphony of the Trees, in a concert focusing solely on the recorder taking inspiration from the sound of birdsong which cuts through the crisp air of the Fen valley where she lives. Armed with bass, tenor, alto and double recorders, she’ll transcribe birdsong into a minimalist solo chamber-music recital.  

Fellow East Anglian and, indeed, festival favourite, Luke Wright, returns to the fold with his latest critically-acclaimed show, Silver Jubilee. peppered with a bit of ‘stand-up’ for good measure. The show promises a hoot as it features some wild experiments in the form of a nervous kitten called Sir John Betjeman and a healthy smattering of drum ‘n’ bass, delivered, of course, by the directness and pathos for which Luke is so well known for. 

Local poetry collective, Toast, will curate and host this year’s Speak Easy, a performance poetry tent pitched in Festival Gardens while Spill Festival director, Robin Deacon, will perform his own work Through the Round Window.

Exploring issues surrounding the environment, A Greener World features the world première of three short plays by Steve Waters entitled Phoenix, Dodo and Butterfly while the installation, On Our Doorsteps, explores the relationships between urban communities and the green spaces in their neighbourhood. The work has been created by Zakiya Mackenzie and Tiitu Takalo in collaboration with local people and Norfolk Wildlife Trust. 

Over at west Norfolk in King’s Lynn, Art for the Environment, showing at the GroundWork Gallery (17 Purfleet Street, King's Lynn, PE30 1ER) features some of the most exciting artists to come from University of the Arts London, drawing one’s attention to our fragile planet.  

In the City of Literature Weekend (in association with the National Centre for Writing) questions of communication and representation will be explored over a host of interesting events by such luminous writers as Carys Davies, Jon McGregor, Val McDermid and Marchelle Farrell. 

Other festival highlights include the world première of a new eight-hour epic organ composition, 268 years of reverb, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood while, in stark contrast, one can view Antony Gormley’s spectacular large-scale installation Time Horizon at Houghton Hall as well as a series of sculptures by the Kenyan-born British studio potter, Dame Magdalene Odundo.  

Youth at the helm. The launch of The Book of Thetford, created by children from Thetford schools, in collaboration with artists Andy Field and Beckie Darlington, showcases one of several projects involving the festival working in tandem with Norfolk community groups. 

You want more! Just click on to open a treasure-chest of cultural activity like no other! 

Box office: 01603 531800; online:; in person: Norwich Guildhall by Norwich marketplace. 

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