Pulse Theatre Festival, June 2012

'Opposition', Hannah Silva
New Wolsey Theatre, Friday 8th June
'Cracking claptrap!'

Hannah Silva is one of a kind. In fact, she's about five performers in one; a performance poet, an expressive dancer, a lecturer, a motivational speaker and an impressionist. Her show, 'Opposition', is positively schizophrenic. It's a wired, slippery and brilliantly insightful performance, in which Silva not only explores but embodies the idea of political double speak.

With the use of a lectern, some clever lighting and an exceptionally sophisticated script, Silva impersonates and lampoons a slew of politicians across the ages. In an extended and extensively disrupted speech, Silva slides between a host of slippery characters, purposefully stumbling over their bold but baffling policies. The running speech – which feels like watching ticker tape read out loud – is constantly interrupted by strange physical tics, tourettes like exclamations ('claptrap! Tweet!') and some tight, expressive dance segments.

Silva also gets the crowd involved. This is a demanding show – way out of most spectators' comfort zones – yet Silva holds the audience in the palm of her hands, as we howl and chant on command. 'Be the best!' we scream, as Silva beams at us with her stretched, Cheshire cat grin. It feels exhilarating and bizarre, to be dumbly championing the very slogans that Silva is sending up on stage.

Every moment is packed to bursting point. Rarely does Silva make one point, when she can squeeze in three ideas and three performances at once. There are some particularly effective sequences that revolve around a sofa, where Silva slumps and watches the news. As the TV flickers robotically in the shadows, Silva blurts out depressing, obscure headlines; '1 year old murdered pregnant girl!' The news stories have been warped beyond recognition yet, frighteningly, they still feel real. Amidst these headlines, Silva also voices her own confusion. As she marvels at just how fucked up mankind is, her body twists oddly around the sofa, mimicking the churning she (and we) feels inside.

As Silva stands at the lectern and undercuts speeches from Obama, Cameron, Bush and a host of other political big wigs, her body starts working against her. Silva's smile might be frozen in a rigor mortis grin but her arms prance about above her, as if controlled by a string. Clever lighting creates huge shadows that lurch up behind Silva, mocking her yet also lending her speeches a strange, magnified power. It not only looks damn impressive but also cleverly reminds us just how widespread this political puppetry has become. 

'Anima', The Karavan Ensemble
New Wolsey Theatre, Friday 8th June 2012
'Are you sure these are standing lamps?' 

The opening of 'Anima' is a bit like an extended Ikea Interiors showcase only, obviously, much classier. Lights of every size and colour strew the stage, bouncing about like skittish animals. Gradually, the lights take on personalities. Or perhaps they simply reflect the characters holding them. A sultry lady in a blue dress plays seductively with a particularly inquisitive, glowing ball. A lonely lad sits alone with a standing lamp that twists, nervously, around him and a haunted looking lass creeps about with flickering matches.

It's all very whimsical, gently absorbing stuff. The members of the Karavan Ensemble look upwards and discover the lighting rig. It's as if the heavens themselves have opened. Shadow shows are then thrown into the mix. A screen is pulled across the stage and, behind it, torches dance in the dark. Two ladies, their size changing dramatically at clever moments, chase each other's shadows. We get snatches of narrative but it's essentially quite a passive experience; a chance to let these strange, beautiful images to wriggle into your head and play there for a while.

But then the 'meaning' kicks in. Or lack therof. A lad halts the show, claiming the lights have now been fixed and proposes we start again from the beginning. Not just the beginning of the show but the beginning of time itself; 'And at the beginning, there was light. Or darkness. Yes, darkness.' And so the light show kicks off again but with hints of new beginnings. A young couple plays out a love scene, their lights complementing their seduction. Children's laughter burbles in the background and the show gradually gets tangled up in its own search for meaning.

As more and more narrative seeps in the show's impact dims. Just as the shadow shows take off, the spectacle is frozen and the actors vaguely, toyingly de construct their performance. But this show isn't quite clear or clever enough to sustain these interruptions and everything starts to unravel. As the multi-coloured lights do one last dance, one can can feel the audience drifting away.

'Mega!' Bryony Kimmings
New Wolsey Theatre, Saturday 9th June 2012
'Happy daze!'

I've only seen two of Bryony Kimmings' shows and yet I feel like I know her, inside out. That might sound like an backhand compliment but it's actually a sign of what a strong, honest and imaginative performer Kimmings is. She gives herself completely in her performances, leaving little traces of herself wherever she travels and touching her audiences, profoundly, with every show.

In 'Mega!', Kimmings offers up her 9 year-old self. In fact, she asks us to share this moment – this self – with her. A small audience is led into a dingy cupboard, presented with ludicrously shiny shell suits (100% polyester – suitably trashy) and a trusty old walkman. Kimmings slips a few secret gifts into our pockets and, with that, we're turned out into the great outdoors. Or, at least, the cement-lined surroundings of the Wolsey Theatre.

It's a strange old sight, as four souls wander around in the drizzling rain, clutching their headphones and lost in their own worlds – or the world as Briony Kiimgs saw it, aged 9. Backed by a splendidly nostalgic soundtrack (Ice, ice baby!) we stomp around as any 9 year old would, avoiding eye contact and traipsing around in a wonderful daze.

Snippets of Kimmings' childhood whoosh through our heads. One moment we're messing about in the playground, the next we're crying hot tears. We're screaming at our sister or avoiding our mum. We're wondering where are father is. And we're dreaming about the opening of a dazzling new restaurant: the Megatron. The opening of this motorway diner, which resembles a space ship, reminds one just how big the small moments seem when we are young. The opening takes on astronomical importance and the rumoured light show might as well be the Northern Lights. We long for that opening with all the ardour that Kimmings so palpably felt.

The desolation Kimmings feels when she finally enters Megatron's doors – all soggy chips and frightening props – is our misery too. This is an exceptionally persuasive show, which plays with our senses yet never controls them. There's plenty of space for the mind to wander and make our own, personal connections with the memories on tape. Gradually, each landmark moment in Kimmings' life begins to shimmer with our own, near-forgotten childhood memories.

When Kimmings warns her younger self – 'growing up is hard' – it tears right through you. Jolted out of this wonderful haze, it's as if all those years between our childhood and today have been cruelly, unexpectedly snatched away. But there's one last chance to be young again. As Vanilla Ice kicks off again and we chew on the hubba bubba snatched from our shell suits, it feels – for one wonderful moment – as if a lifetime of childhood summers sprawls out in front of us.

'Birdhouse', Jammy Voo
New Wolsey Studio, Saturday 9th June 2012
A work in progress
'Four little birds are we!' 

Four ladies, who look like men dressed as ladies but are in fact just ladies, sit primly next to each other. Huge glasses dwarf their faces, sprawling nest-like wigs perch on their heads and their pinched expressions look plain funny. They seem anxious to please but bloody nervous too. Suddenly, they start squawking - 'Horror, horror!' - and unleash a torrent of strange descriptions of even stranger deaths.

There's more than a whiff of Monty Python about truly kooky company, Jammy Voo, although they've got a sharp, sinister edge too. A late night, female version of Monty Python if you will. This is deeply surreal stuff, as the four ladies riff on the theme of birds and horror. What is most striking and promising is just how comfortable these actors seem in their nutty, self-enclosed, constantly morphing world. It's an environment that makes sense to them and makes sense of their jaunty, skittish mode of delivery.

This is a work in progress and there are plenty of large cracks left to smooth over. This was never going to be a fluid show but it still requires a sturdy, confident structure. At the moment, despite an on-stage guitarist lending an air of serene cohesion, these disparate sketches don't always help each other out. There are too many slight scenes – really just experiments – that don't work and really just slow the show down.

Still, there are flashes of mental genius in here; the type of scenes that make you marvel at the minds that stumbled across such bizarre, arresting images. The four ladies line up in a row, their faces even more pinched than normal. One by one, an extra large egg squeezes out of each taut mouth. A word is spelt out: FEAR. Each frazzled lady carefully disposes of her egg: one is popped back inside the mouth, another goes into the audience and one lucky egg ends up in a nest, made entirely of hair. It's very silly but with a spiky edge, as the women quietly try to bury their fears.


'The Oh F**k Moment', Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe
New Wolsey Theatre, Saturday 9th June 2012
'I've got me a theatre crush!' 

If Chris Thorpe created an interactive show that involved blindfolding his audience and leading them clean off a cliff, I suspect I'd happily follow him over the edge. He's that good. He's that persuasive. He really is, in the fringe theatre world, a bit of a bleeding messiah.

It's hard to pin down exactly why Thorpe is such a compelling performer. Part of it's down to good old fashioned charisma. (This is starting to sound like a full-blown crush but bear with me.) 'The Oh F**k Moment' takes place around an office desk, which looks like it's been hit with a post-it-notes bomb. Crap is strewn everywhere. It's all a bit awkward at first, as the audience anxiously sips tea together but Thorpe soon rallies the troop. He opens his mouth and everybody stops and listens. More importantly, everyone relaxes.

Thorpe has this peculiar ability to comfort his audience, whilst also scaring us half to death. It's like a cuddly tear giving you a bomb and hugging you whilst it explodes. Thorpe greets us with the reassurance: 'Don't worry, I'm not acting'. As he does so often, Thorpe 'tricks' the audience into becoming his friend – and then he hits us smack in the face. Just as we're getting relaxed, Thorpe spits out a hard-edged poem about people screwing up with dire, sometimes deadly consequences. It's cheeky and funny but it's dangerous and relentless too.

The atmosphere swings – ever so gently – at Thorpe's command. For great stretches of the show we're all in it together, sharing our own shameful 'oh fuck moments'. Following Thorpe's lead, the audience binds together to create a warm, forgiving and hopeful environment. Barring the fact he's an exceptionally thoughtful performer, Thorpe is also brilliant at simply making people like each other. His shows always end with a buzzing audience, lively and surprisingly keen to talk – even in

But that's not to say his shows are fuzzy and sentimental. Far from it. We're never allowed to settle for long. Just as we're all geeing each other along, Hannah Jane Walker cuts through the laughter with a sharp-tongued poem. Or, just as the audience really begins to bond, Thorpe splits us up again. Two spectators are gently requested to read through a role play, in which two pilots cause a whole lot of deaths. Suddenly, the atmosphere grows heavy, thick with judgement.

It's a strange little dance, watching Thorpe's shows. You can feel him pulling the strings and yet you can't help but follow. He is a performer riddled with intriguing contradictions. He seems obsessed by his own mortality, yet one always leaves his shows bursting with optimism. He seems to find human begins very silly indeed, yet somehow inspires a peculiar belief in mankind. And, although Thorpe creates shows with no stage, set or special effects, he is one of the most natural, theatrical performers you will ever see.


'Northern Soul', Victoria Melody
New Wolsey Studio, Saturday 9th June 2012
'Fancy footwork and fleeing pigeons'

Pulse Festival does a fine line in charming performers. It's a quality one rarely finds in London; even the young actors right on the edge of the fringe have a hard edge to them. Open and warm, they are not. Yet the performers at Pulse are warm, honest and endearing, their shows often far more persuasive as a result. Perhaps the most charming of the lot is the delightfully dotty Victoria Melody.

Yet, despite this praise, I'm not completely convinced that Melody is made for the stage. She is a brilliant storyteller and a fascinating woman but there's a dreamy quality to her delivery that slightly diminishes her performance. Perhaps this'll firm up over time. She also isn't helped by her loose script, which is packed with golden but scattered material.

There's shedloads of content here – and a whole host of garden sheds – but some serious editing is needed. The show is called 'Northern Soul' and it does, in part, explore this little-known dancing craze up North. But Melody also spent a year chatting with, living with and recording pigeon-lovers. And they're a damn fascinating bunch. On top of all this, Melody also has a brilliantly eccentric dad who deserves a show all to himself.

Each of these topics could fill a script to bursting point – but all of them squeezed together grows a tad frustrating. Melody's narrative, pictures and film clips allow only tempting glimpses into these intriguing, near-forgotten communities. We're shown all-too fleeting video clips: a strapping Northern lads strides onto the floor and suddenly swoops into a series of ridiculously elegant dance moves. We see Melody's father (ruddy cheeked and ridiculously cheeky) on a dodgy antiques show, buying his daughter an ornate, pigeon clock. We're shown shots of straight backed old men standing silently in their gardens, patiently waiting for their pigeons to come home.

They're brilliant little snippets but they're not enough. These grabbed moments leave one desperate for more – and not in a healthy way. It's obvious that Melody is a brilliantly inquisitive performer and she's clearly made a home for herself in each new community she enters. If only we could've seen a little more closely inside.