Festival director gets set for start

Since the 18th century it has been a highlight of the cultural calendar – and now there’s a new man in charge. On the eve of his first Norfolk & Norwich Festival, Jonathan Holloway spoke about his past and told the EDP how he sees the event’s future.

Mention the words “Norwich” and “festival” and the chances are most people will automatically think of beer.

That's one of the challenges facing Jonathan Holloway as he gears up for Wednesday May 4, which sees the opening of the first Norfolk & Norwich Festival under his directorship.

The annual celebration of the arts is a greatly loved institution and it is clear in conversation with Jonathan that he feels privileged to be at the helm.

But he is also concerned that more people should know about it, and talks of “changing the energy of the festival”; it should be “like an explosion – everyone should know it's going on”.

“I don't think it was lacking in the past, but it's about shouting about it a bit more and getting everyone aware. It has been here since 1789, but talk about 'the festival' and people think of the beer festival first.

“Now, that's not to do down beer – I know a lot of people are very committed to beer! But people should think of them both.”

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Expect this year's festival to be as bright and eye-catching as any in living memory, then.

A week ahead of the opening, the team is caught in a late flurry of nervous excitement and important details: getting flags and banners made and “making sure all the contracts are watertight – all the dull stuff that means that by next week we can begin to play”, Jonathan explains, conceding that it's only now that the scale of the enterprise is sinking in.

“It's that realisation in the last couple of days, just how real it is. Everything that sounded great when it was a statistic – like people travelling 20,000 miles [to get here] and 600 performers – still sounds great, but the reality is huge.”

The 35-year-old is well equipped to cope. He arrived here as the successor to Peter Bolton on the back of seven years at the National Theatre, on London's South Bank, and is relishing the switch from a big organisation with a limited performance space to a smaller body that has the whole of Norwich to play with.

“It's great to use a building like the National Theatre but to have an entire city is just a knockout. It's a fantastic festival city.”

Jonathan joined the National in 1997, starting the same week that Trevor Nunn became director.

“His idea was to change people's perceptions of the area and draw in new audiences, to make it lively and vibrant while not losing the essence of what it is, which is a really high quality producing theatre.

“I set up a new department and we produced a whole range of work throughout the year, from cabaret to street theatre, family days, children's days, work on stage.

“I got to work with some of the most brilliant people. The calibre of their work was so high, the level of knowledge was just tremendous.

“You had to stay on form, because you are working with people who are really sharp. Certainly no time for artistically slacking. If things weren't right they would be cut.”

He is equally complimentary about the people at the festival's offices in St George's Street, whom he describes as “probably the best team I've ever worked with”, and about their “incredibly supportive” chief sponsors, rail company 'one'.

He's not missing London in the slightest, he adds. Jonathan already knew Norfolk a little through having friends in Yarmouth, but has been pleasantly taken aback since moving to his home in St Giles' Street with his partner Jenny.

“When I came up for the first day to talk about the job, I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be. There's a lovely quality of life.”

He grew up near Sheffield, where he was a cathedral chorister, and read drama at Exeter University.

“From there I worked in various small venues in Devon and Somerset, before going to Bracknell, Berkshire, where I was the resident theatre director for about three years until I went to the National Theatre in 1997.”

Long before that, however, his love of the performing arts was evident.

“I'm told by people that I was directing productions in my garden when I was five. I find that hard to disbelieve,” he laughs.

“Then I joined the choir when I was seven or eight, and I went into youth theatre when I was 15. I quickly realised I didn't want to act, and no one else wanted me to act either! I flirted with lots of things – I even tried stand-up comedy. I was really unfunny.”

That's actually quite hard to believe, as he has an infectious enthusiasm and has people laughing regularly throughout our interview. He lists music as another of his keen interests, and is enjoying being able to work in this field more than he has in the past.

“The music programme has been great to get my teeth into. I was doing a lot less at the National. It's a passion of mine and it's not something I had done as much of as I would have liked.

“Now it's one of my main focuses. This year we will have 15 more musical events than last year, and we're also broadening out the range of work that's being done.”

Artists he's looking forward to seeing include the Festival Chorus, with their performance of Michael Tippett's A Child of our Time, and Lhasa de Sela, a Mexican Canadian chanteuse. Both acts are appearing in St Andrew's Hall, which begs the inevitable question of whether Jonathan thinks Norwich has adequate performance space for concerts, or whether the city needs a new dedicated concert hall.

“I think for the festival another concert venue would be great. St Andrew's Hall needs a bit of love and care and attention, and a bit of cash. My fear about a dedicated venue would be 'could you fill it often enough to make it viable?'”

The opening event will see the festival making use of one of the city's newer spaces – a free spectacular display of acrobatics and music from French company Transe Express, at 6.30pm on Wednesday at the Millennium Plain. Chapelfield Gardens is also being turned into the venue for the Luminarium, a gigantic multicoloured sculpture you can walk through, which promises to be a treat for the eyes.

It all looks set to be a festival with the widest appeal yet, whether you're looking for classical music or jazz, street theatre or stand-up comedy.

And of course, if you go to the theatre you can always get a beer at the interval.

t To book tickets call 01603 766400 or visit www.n-joy.org.uk.