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Secret Garden Party 2023 review: escapist revelry meets galactic disco at UK festival gem

A different kind of energy runs through the independent Cambridgeshire music festival, as real life is suspended and escapist instincts takes over

4.0 rating

By Hollie Geraghty

(Picture: Matt Higgs)

It’s all too evident in the name, but Secret Garden Party is the kind of festival that promises a sufficient level of escapism to its punters. Situated in the Cambridgeshire countryside, revellers descend on the secluded site to detach from reality and embrace a stripped back existence for four days, where music, nature and hedonism reigns. 

Campers arrive with a touch of trepidation this year, though, as murmurs of 2022 festivities being marred by a dodgy loo situation mean annual attendees are expecting a big turnaround. The 2023 theme – ‘A New Hope’ – may have encouraged festival-goers to arrive clad in Star Wars attire while wielding lightsabers and extraterrestrial paraphernalia, but it also served as a promise to address previous shortcomings. 

This year, not only do organisers make good on their word, but everyone on the festival site – crew members and hospitality staff included – runs on extraordinarily positive vibes. This infectiously optimistic ethos finds its way into every nook and cranny across the immersive site, from the unrelenting, thumping dance floor energy of the HE.SHE.THEY. stage and the popular Pagoda platform that juts out into a reservoir, to the huge variety of electronic and drum’n’ bass stages zig zagged across the site.

(Picture: Andrew Whitton)

Friday’s main stage musical proceedings sees Gen-Z’s pink-haired pop maven Baby Queen perform a scaled back set list thanks to a tour van that wouldn’t start in the morning. “I feel like Lana Del Rey at Glastonbury, I wasn’t doing my hair,” she jokes. By late afternoon, sunshine washes over the crowd as Lava La Rue attempts to be “the first artist this weekend to start a mosh pit on the main stage” with the thrashing ‘Renegade’ – they succeed.

Things take a wacky turn for Peaches’ bass-booming, snare-tastic set, whose topless backup dancers flail while wearing vagina headpieces, before the near-naked singer sprays champagne on the crowd for ‘Fuck The Pain Away’. Headliners The Libertines, while a slightly odd key change after the frenetic energy of 2ManyDJs, balance nimble, shifty tracks like ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ against the warmer ‘What Katie Did’ – which moves Pete Doherty and Carl Barât to affectionately embrace – and the tender ‘You’re My Waterloo’. Later, over on the Where The Wild Things Are stage, Irish rap trio Kneecap bulldoze their way through a raucous 1am set.

Underworld at Secret Garden Party (Picture: Andrew Whitton)

Saturday might be an all-day washout, but Biig Piig draws a sizable crowd as she defiantly kicks and dances her way across the stage. “I like your energy, I like your vibe,” she chimes, before declaring: “Fuck the rain!” Saturday’s real highlight, though, is the awe-inspiring, first-ever UK firework and drone show, as a stunningly synchronised, multi-coloured display in the clear skies above feels like the closest thing to witnessing a real-life close encounter.

As Underworld emerge to close out the main stage, the weather that threatened to dampen spirits instead creates a primal electronic music experience, as rain pelts down during ‘Born Slippy’ which floods the crowd with a surge of euphoria. It’s just a shame they aren’t closing the entire festival, while a female headliner could have taken the extra slot. Meanwhile, on the Where The Wild Things Are stage, dream pop enchantress Desire and synth icon Johnny Jewel cast a spell over the crowd who dance under the misty midnight rain.

Roisin Murphy (Picture: Andrew Whitton)

On the final day, Roisin Murphy’s high-energy dance set catches a pocket of golden hour sunshine, before Del La Soul’s funky, soulful performance elevates spirits long into the evening. Fat Freddy’s Drop’s sprawling seven-piece reggae ensemble closes out the main stage as fan favourites like ‘Wandering Eye’ gets the crowd bumping and rolling for one final SGP blowout, but it doesn’t quite reach the fierce energy levels of the previous night. “This is one hell of a festival,” they tell the crowd.

Secret Garden Party, despite a few mistakes and wobbles in the past, claims to be “the party that really gives a s**t”. In 2023, to be fair, they really, really do.