Festival favourite returns to brighten up May

For just over a month every year, the south end of Brighton’s Old Steine hosts a temporary wonderland. In the last 11 years, it’s become a place, as much a part of the city’s identity as pebbles on the beach or the Royal Pavilion.

Camping out around the Victoria Fountain during May, Brighton Spiegeltent offers a dynamic selection of everything from swing music to outrageous drag shows, and dance events, to the best in children’s entertainment, it probably has something to delight those looking for the unique and memorable.  “We work hard to put together a real variety programme,” says Deputy Event Manager, Sam Rush. “It’s not all cabaret. It’s not all music. It’s about having brilliant and nice stuff. It’s a real oddball, mish-mash of everything. Because that’s the way we like it. You want to know that if you’re coming to see something at Brighton Spiegeltent, it is going to be a little bit off-the-wall. That’s the vibe we want.”

Sam has been with this independently-run mini-festival for eight years now. She tells me her role mostly involves liaising with artists, traders and suppliers, looking after the crew and getting her hands dirty. “I guess ‘the woman without portfolio’ is my unofficial title!” Across May, there’s roughly 50 people a day working on site, which includes bar staff, crew and technicians. They help stage 129 shows, which amount to 233 performances. For this they sell an astonishing 30,000 tickets during the season. Brighton Spiegeltent’s estimated footfall is around 80,000 across the whole of May, while a sunny Bank Holiday weekend might encourage 5,000 people in a day to come down and check out the Spiegel magic, which is on par with some of Sussex’s most famous tourist attractions. 

Head First Acrobats, Cal Harris & Thomas Gorham performing at a special Spiegeltent charity showcase with the very best 'Heart of the Fringe' performers helping kick off the season at Brighton Fringe 2017, Brighton Spiegeltent, Old Steine, City of Brighton & Hove, UK. 9th May 2017.

“We want people to experience a bit of magic and what we love,” says Sam. “We’re all doing this because we love it. When I started, I came down to volunteer and put a bit of bunting up. I always say bunting is a gateway drug in this industry. That’s it, you’re hooked for life…”  Partnering on the hospitality side of things is another familiar Brighton brand, Laine. The local pub chain is not only bringing down the best of their Laine Brew Co beers, but a selection of well-chosen wines and spirits. “We’re really pleased to be working with them. They get what we do. If you go into some of their pubs around the city, you see that Spiegel magic.”

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“The site is really nicely contained. We’ve very carefully created that over the past 11 years, to make this perfect little insulated bit that’s protected from the rest of Brighton. You’re stepping into Spiegelworld.” And this is a dreamlike space. It offers a specially created garden, complete with different seating sections, welcoming bars, a cocktail van and plentiful food offerings, where you relax before or after a show, or simply hang out amongst the carnival-like atmosphere. This sits between two performance venues, each with their own rich sense of identity and purpose.

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The larger of the two is the Tivoli Spiegeltent from Belgium and owned by a family business dating back almost a century. This structure, featuring wooden floors, ornate decoration and lush drapes, follows a proud tradition of similar venues travelling between fairs, festivals and dance events across Europe. “They bring it every year, roll up on site, build it and then go. Then afterwards, they come and take it down again. It’s gone before you know it. They’re very traditional.” Across the gardens is the Bosco Theater, (* Dutch spelling) which comes from a similar family in Amsterdam. Built in 1909, this original Dutch “Kermis-circus” tent houses amphitheatre seating inside. The intimate environment makes it ideal for leftfield performances which you’re unlikely to see in most other places. These short runs of unusual and exciting works range from relentless alternative comedians to cutting edge family shows. “We couldn’t do it with something else. I’m sure we’d give it a go, but we wouldn’t want to do that to Brighton…”

BS16 BOSCO Theater

Spiegeltent has also evolved into an impromptu hub for the whole of Brighton’s festival season. On any stroll through their gardens, you’ll overhear talk of this sensation, or even meet performers in their downtime. “I think those are just our people… It just happens that way. If you come down, you’re going to meet someone flyering and talking about their show. For whatever reason, that doesn’t happen across Brighton so much.”

Where it sits on Old Stiene is hardly a dormant space for the rest of the year. Sam tells me that a lot of careful planning goes into constructing something so extraordinary on such a compact site. There are flowerbeds, fully matured trees and a 150-year-old fountain to be mindful of. Fitting everything in is a marvel of translation. “It is incredible, with the level of infrastructure that goes into making that site work. Our ethos with that site is that it’s our home. We want to keep coming back to it, so we do look after it. That we deck the site is not by accident. We want to protect the ground. We’re trying to leave no trace.” Almost everything has to be brought with them, which is a big job when you’re welcoming thousands of people to what is essentially a transformed large roundabout. While there is a water source, any power needs to be drawn from onsite generators. 

To supplement these, Brighton Spiegeltent has been using hybrid fuel cell technology from Horizon Offgrid Energy since before they officially came onto the market. Originally created for the construction industry, these extraordinarily efficient power units are not only cleaner but also quieter. “There’s an impact on having a diesel generator running all the time. It’s not just environmental but financial, so we’re trying to minimise that and make it quieter for nearby residents.” They’ve also been using reusable glassware instead of single use plastic for quite a while and go to great lengths to leave no trace after everything has moved on.

Cabaret Boheme presents Showtime at Brighton Fringe, Brighton Spiegeltent, Old Stiene, City of Brighhton & Hove, UK. 16th May 2019

While there’s obviously a burst of activity around April and May, Sam says organising and curating the event is a year-round affair. “We have a really nice returning roster of shows. There are favourites of ours and the audiences who’ll always come back.” Amongst those returning is Brighton’s legendary, Multi-Award winning, Alfie Ordinary, who returns for a fourth consecutive year to bring you an evening of high camp, low brow entertainment – accompanied by his trademark glitter-drenched brand of anarchic humour. There’s also Drag Race UK and cabaret superstar, Joe Black, who unleashes another season of vaudevillian musical mischief, accompanied by a live band.

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“It just wouldn’t be the same without them,” says Sam. “There’s also shows that know what we do, and why it’s a little bit different, who’ll approach us and join the family. For example, we have glamorous headline shows like United Queendom from Europe and Dizney In Drag from Australia, who played with us last year and went so well are coming back for a longer run.”

Other shows on offer hail from a broad spectrum. You can witness a talk celebrating sound pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Genesis P-Orridge one evening. Then spend an afternoon with something more family orientated, perhaps The Extraordinary Time Travelling Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or marvelling at the crazy antics of Dizzy O’Dare’s The Giant Balloon Show – which comes complete with loads of audience participation and a banging 80’s soundtrack. “It’s about the weird and the wonderful. If you speak to somebody in Brighton and ask them what a ‘Spiegely vibe’ is, they couldn’t tell you exactly, but they’ll always know…”

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Brighton Spiegeltent comes to Old Steine Gardens on Fri 3 May  – Sun 2 June.

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