Brighton Fringe: Woodstock recreated by just one person

Jonathan Brown is inhabiting something like 65 characters in lightning-fast succession as he brings the world of Woodstock to life in his latest solo open-air show.

Jonathan Brown - Woodstock
Jonathan Brown - Woodstock

The artistic director of Something Underground theatre company, he is going to deliver the essence of an event which became – without ever intending to be – the world’s largest free festival.

Jonathan will be offering The Spirit of Woodstock at St Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove, from May 28-June 27 as part of the Brighton Fringe.

His task is to bring to life an event which saw more than 500,000 people all squeezed together on a dairy farm in northern New York state.

Audiences will walking along the 17b Road into the festival; they will be a chopper pilot ferrying the world’s most famous musicians upstate; and they will be musicians about to step out onto the stage at Woodstock.

Even more impressively, Jonathan will give the festival its wider context.

Audiences will witness the shooting of Bobby Kennedy; they will be on the beach opposite the Kennedy Space Centre watching the launch of Apollo 11; they will be part of an anti-Vietnam war riot in Chicago; and they will be the captain of a Russian nuclear submarine submerged off the coast of Cuba.

“I was five at the time of Woodstock so maybe it wasn’t so important for me at the time, but I was marinated in the juices of 60s UK which was marinated in the world of 60s everywhere, and I guess I was dimly aware of what was happening. You just stew in those juices as a small child.

“But for America, Woodstock was the culmination of one hell of a decade. You had the Cuban Missile Crisis, you had the anti-war protests, you had the civil rights movement, you had women’s rights, you had the pill, you had the moon landing…”

And you had Woodstock: “The organiser had been arranging smaller festivals. He was putting it all together and it was originally meant to be a smaller festival, but everyone got wind of what was happening and headed upstate. About three weeks before the festival, they were refused permission for the festival in its original location and they had to move, and they managed to get all the infrastructure together in time except for one thing. They didn’t have a fence. They couldn’t stop people coming in without tickets. It was billed in the end as the biggest free festival but it was never intended to be. They ended up with more than half a million people. Part of the way through they just had to accept that it was a free festival now.”

What it wasn’t was a political festival: “The organisers were determined that it was going to be about the music and the creativity.”

Instead they managed to pay off anyone wanting to turn it into a political event and got them working at the festival instead.”

And this is what Jonathan brings to the stage: “I play something like 65 characters in quick succession. Each one gets a brief vignette. I drop into each personality from Neil Armstrong to someone cleaning the toilets at the festival to someone attending the festival. And some of the vignettes illustrate the wider context of 1960s America. There are moments from the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are moments through the decade and there are moments from the festival and there are moments from the organisation of the festival.”

“And there is the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. I left JFK out. It was very hard to, but I thought it was just too obvious. And I just didn’t want too many assassinations in the show!

“The whole thing is imbued with the soundscape of the time, but was incubated in the 2020 lockdown and is now ready to be re-released to infect your soul. So come and enjoy the whole show with your picnics, wrapped up in tie dye, and ready to be taken back to a time that was happening, golden and groovy!”