Hat Fair celebrates 50th birthday

Hat Fair celebrates 50th birthday

Photos by Adrienne Photography

Hat Fair – the UK’s longest running festival of Outdoor Arts – celebrated its 50th birthday in style last weekend (Friday 5 – Sunday 7 July) – despite the patchy weather.

The festivities began around lunchtime on the Friday – shortly after the first performances of the weekend had begun – with the Hat Fair Carnival – made up of hundreds of school children and community groups who danced down the High Street in colourful costumes inspired by the theme, Look Back, Look Forwards, Look Up! – joined by Blue Apple Theatre’s large-scale Jane Austen puppet and a community-made repurposing of last year’s Junk Giant – now the Junk Robot. After their procession, the Carnival participants sheltered inside Guildhall Winchester to enjoy a performance from hatter, Darryl J Carrington.

Other hatters – buskers who hold out a hat following their performance to collect donations and from whom Hat Fair gets its name – also entertained and involved the masses with their clever circus, comedy, magic and silliness. Including Imre Bernath, Fraser Hooper, Billy Kidd, Streetcomedy, The Great Dave, Kiki Bittovabitsch and Pascal, and Matt Pang.

Later, on the Friday evening, festival goers and guests were invited to convene at Theatre Royal Winchester for an Opening Ceremony, which was relocated from in front of Winchester Cathedral to the theatre venue due to the torrential rain. Once inside the auditorium, a narrator shared the story of Hat Fair’s origins in 1974; community singers and dancers performed, and Autin Dance Theatre took to the stage with Parade – The Wheel, a dance piece and giant wheel that had captivated audiences earlier that day in the Carnival.

Across the festival weekend, a number of shows co-commissioned by Hat Fair – as part of Without Walls, a national network of organisations bringing innovative outdoor arts to towns and cities across England – impressed audiences. Including Tit for Tat Circus’ Now I Am Become Deaf (Destroyer of Words) – exploring the performer’s own degenerative hearing loss, Jeanefer Jean-Charles’ Patois – featuring Caribbean choreography, Raggle Taggle Arts’ Betty Brown Bags – with a hand-puppet King George, and NoFit State Circus, who headlined Sunday’s line-up with a charming and highly-physical show, Bamboo, watched in awe by hundreds inside Guildhall Winchester.

On Saturday evening, while England played Switzerland in the quarter-finals of Euro 2024, many others across the city walked to Busket Yard – behind Winchester bus station – to sit down for a game of bingo as part of Fidget Feet Aerial Dance Theatre’s show, House! which featured giant bingo balls, an Elvis on a tractor, samba, break-dancing and plenty of audience participation.

Plus, the hatters came together for their Hatters Cabaret and DJ Shanazzle took to the decks to help festival goers – and football fans – celebrate the wins!

While forecasters promised unpredictable weather and the Hat Fair team worked tirelessly to ensure the majority of performances happened, audiences were praised for remaining to watch shows in the rain – including those at Gobbledegook Theatre’s Cloudscapes, which involved festival goers laying on giant bean bags on the grass in Abbey Gardens.

Hat Fair also played host to local and young talent too – including choirs, musicians, dancers, groups with cultural song, dance and spoken word performances; Playmakers Youth Theatre groups who performed drama and musical theatre inside P&G Wells bookshop and the opposite Jane Austen lawn, and students from University of Winchester who took part in the festival’s Top Hat competition – with Truth be Told Theatre Company the winners with their The Taming of the Shrew-inspired show, Shrewish Women.

Festival goers could also enjoy juggling workshops and shows; crazy golf; school-fete style games to help fundraise for Play to the Crowd – the charity behind the festival; and more.

Hat Fair gives generous thanks to Arts Council England’s National Lottery Project Grant, Without Walls and Culture Ireland.

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