Henley Festival Review

Emma McCall explores the wonders of the Henley Festival, a black tie event held every year on the banks of the River Thames.

Held on the iconic site of the Royal Regatta (which happens the week before) last week’s Henley Festival transforms the Thames riverbank into a glamorous wonderland. More dreamy than a Lewis Carroll vision and not a mud splattered welly in sight, this unique black tie soiree is now in it’s 34th year and it seems to be getting bigger and better, drawing huge line ups such as Sir Elton John.

We joined the well-heeled party on the sunny Friday evening. Stepping through the entrance you are greeted by a fantastic array of sights and sounds. Small clusters of people were gathered round pop-up bands and street performers. Henley Festival sculpture

To my left was a peacock-inspired 1940’s singer, and to my right, a pair of 12ft (authentic) Aussie bouncing kangaroo performers. It’s not just the spontaneous entertainers that catch the eye: the festival includes art galleries, sculptures and comedy acts all dotted along the riverbank.

Ronnie Scotts Henley FestivalWe were ravenous and this was just as well; those seeking food are spoilt for choice. This year hosted Michelin-starred chef Daniel Clifford at the Riverside Restaurant, where dinners can enjoy candle lit cuisine, but we opted for the ‘Ronnie Scott Experience’.

This was under an impressive Paradisco Cabaret tent where guests soak up some live jazz under the guidance of maestro James Pearson over a top notch burger and cocktail. We also called into the Crooked Billet, a popular local pub which hosted a large riverside restaurant, and provided a perfect sundowner spot.Henley Festival big stage

Seated outdoors in front of a spectacular floating stage (alarmingly) holding the entire Welsh National Opera (conducted by Gareth Jones), headliner Bryn Tefel treated us to an unforgettable array of classical hits.

Accompanied by Corinne Winters, they gave a fabulous version of ‘Anything you can do I can do better’ and a spine tingling rendition of ‘I could have danced all night’ from My Fair Lady. Impressive as they were, both were almost upstaged by the 11 year old violinist Alma Deutscher.

A terrific display of fireworks followed, and the Henley Festival experience wouldn’t have been complete without some dance moves in the silent disco – something I thought I’d loathe, but don’t knock it till you try it. You have two music channels, two DJ’s and a dark dance floor to battle over.

All proceeds will be going to Children’s Society.

Henley Festival – at a glance:

Dress: Black tie (the only UK festival with this dress code!) Glamour is the key here.

Food: The Festival offers Michelin starred dining and top-notch names such as Daniel Clifford at the Riverside Restaurant where guests can enjoy a candlelight dinner at the atmospheric riverside restaurant. Paul Clerehugh at the Crooked Billet (local popular pub) has an impressive pop up restaurant on the riverside as well as The Spice Merchant for tantalizing Indian cuisine and Barco for modern style tapas. Street food vendors and bars are also located throughout the riverside­­.

Drink: Soak up the view in the ‘Dog and Badger’ pop-up pub, actually floating on the water. Or perhaps sip champagne in the Lanson Champagne lawn and for a great lively atmosphere, the Bedouin Lounge Bar and Ronnie Scotts have live music all night.

Music: Headliners for this year’s festival were:

Elton John

Elvis Costello & The Imposters

Bryn Terfel performing with the WNO orchestra

Dame Shirley Bassey and Blake

Will Young

Many more live bands and performers including The New Music Stage that will showcase up and coming talent with a five day programme of unsigned acts

Comedy: Tent dedicated to laughs from Al Murray, Reginald D Hunter, Nina Conti, Dillie Keane, Richard Herring, Adam Kay, The Boy With Tape On His Face, Hal Cruttenden, Simon Evans, Frisky & Mannish, Lili La Scala, The Pin, Sam Simmons, Jonny Awsum, Eleanor Tiernan, Chris Kent, and Jess Robinson.

Visual Arts: The weird and wonderful from oversized bouncing human kangaroo’s, floating angels to beautiful sculptures and art galleries. Free ‘circus come Mad Max’ hair styling for the brave. Opportunities for art crafting sessions for children throughout the day during the weekend.

The fireworks display is a breathtaking and extensive show that’s beautifully mirrored by the river.

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