Pulse Festival or 'Pack up your theatre in your old kit bag...'

Pulse Festival 2014
Written for Exeunt 



Theatre festivals – they aren’t half clarifying. The good shows, elevated by comparison, seem brilliant and the bad shows, unforgivably awful. It doesn’t take much to set a show apart; a scene  that sticks in the mind or a burst of emotion that is hard to shake off. And it only takes one mistake – too much pretension or too little preparation – for your show to sink without a trace.
There’s little more clarifying than the Pulse Festival’s Suitcase Day, in which companies are challenged to create 20 minute shows, which can be transported via a suitcase. This is the second year of Suitcase Day, (last year’s Suitcase Day reviewed here) which is curated by China Plate and aims to foster sustainable shows. Sustainability might be the ‘catch’ word but what’s great about this format is that it’s hideously exposing. There’s nowhere for the performers to hide: the great shows shine and the bad shows bomb, badly.
You might think a thin show could be stretched out over twenty minutes but it really, really can’t. Theatre is a stupendously unforgiving medium and the under-written Suitcase shows drag on endlessly. The shows that rely on performance power alone – sparkle versus substance – are the weakest. Lawrence Speck and Joe Wild are charming performers but their piece, Brothers of Justice, is just the start of something; the opening stages of a lively chat down the pub. Rachel Lincoln is sparky as hell but her sex education show, Lie Back and Think of England, is really just a skit. A number of performers make the mistake of thinking a twenty minute slot can’t hold much when, in reality, twenty minutes in the theatre can hold anything you dare squeeze into it.
It is the shows that are layered – verbally, visually and emotionally – that feel like proper, juicy and durable pieces of theatre. Jack Bennett’s devised piece, ‘Too Much Too Young’, has a long way to go but is already whirring away. Bennett’s thesis is that teenagers are asked to make big life choices much too young. There’s a cracking moment when the audience members are asked to switch on their torches (placed under their seats) if they would change a decision they made when young. The dark stage space is flooded with light and the space tingles with shared regret.
The winner of this year’s Suitcase Prize is the off-beat comedy Copy by young company Antler, who  certainly know their own style and strengths. Their’s is a quirky show with little spirals of Kafkaesque comedy and despair. Copy explores the life of a seemingly invisible office worker and is packed with juicy characters and whacky visuals. In one scene, three identical life-size cut-outs dance together, as an actor – the same man – preens to the side of the stage. There’s a Pythonesque obscurity to this talented company, who amp up the little moments and joyfully toss aside life’s bigger concerns.
Antler will no doubt go very far but they don’t get my winning vote. In terms of script control and depth, high praise must go to Catherine Dyson and her dreamlike and beautifully still one woman show, We Don’t Live Here Anymore. There are more thoughtful phrase and fleshed out characters in this one pared down piece than all the other shows bundled together.
For me, though, the stand out ‘Suitcase’ performer is Hannah Silva and her weird and unsettling show Schlock! Sure, this surreal muse on contemporary feminism is over-stuffed and, at times, mightily confusing. It is sometimes very hard to really see into Hannah’s show – but it is performed with passion and vision and is an authentic and deeply considered production.
Hannah sits on a chair, surrounded by glowing manuscripts. She reads from strewn books, including Fifty Shades of Grey and Wuthering Heights. The connection between pleasure and pain throbs strongly. Sometimes that connection seems noble, such as in childbirth, and sometimes it feels cheap and fleeting; handcuffs, kinky sex and forgotten sexual encounters. Hannah plays about with a torch and her face is lit up in a kaleidoscope of different emotions, angry and absurd and stiff with pain. She delivers a tidal wave of words that maybe, just maybe, contain extracts from all the feminist books ever written. The same words are battered repeatedly; pleasure and pain, pleasure and pain. And throughout this entire eerie journey there is a mournfulness that lingers, a sense of deep disappointment and the idea of something lost for good.
Hannah’s show doesn’t even get a mention by the judges, which is a real shame and a slight worry. Nevertheless, last year’s winning show is unusual and impressive. Two Destination Language is made up of a (presumably) real-life couple, the Bulgarian Katherina Radeva and the Brit Alister Lownie. Their show, Near Gone, explores the young couple’s reaction to a shocking event that takes place within Katherina’s family, back home in Bulgaria. As Katherina narrates, Alister translates. There are moments when the translation fails; little snags in the script that remind us that we are relying on one man’s flawed understanding of another woman’s flawed account. The couple dance about each other, moving closer together and further apart according to the cultural and emotional connections or clashes between them. Katherina is a particularly forceful performer and when she dances, it is like a resurrection and screech of farewell, all tied up in one defiant and thrusting movement.
Day 2 is freed from the Suitcase Format – a bit of a shackle – and is meatier for it. Sophie Woolley’s sensory celebration, Holiday Selfie, is a journey back into the hearing world after years of deafness. A simple walk down the street becomes a cacophony of sound and even the flicking of a towel takes on symphonic proportions. There’s an unusual flavour to this show – some wonderfully odd imaginative leaps and jolting monologues – that feel truly original and suggest a woman who has had to rely on her own internal voice and world for a very long time.
Analogue is an earnest and hard-working company but I’m not convinced by their latest piece, Stowaway. The show draws on a newspaper story, which tells of an Indian immigrant who clung to the wheels of a plane, froze to death and fell to earth in a B&Q car-park in England. It’s a fascinating story – but a tricky piece of theatre. There’s a tendency toward romanticism about Stowaway which feels odd and possibly patronising. At one point, writer Hannah Barker seems to suggest that the immigrant jumped on the plane because he wanted to fly – when the reality is so much more mundane, messy and more interesting than that.
We are only shown the beginning and end of Stowaway so there’s still time left to lay down the grit and ground this piece a little. The physical scenes work really well and suggest a show that has emotional guts. At one stage, the Indian crawls all over the unseeing and unflinching Western passengers. There’s such a smooth grace to the Indian man’s movements and such a cool clunkiness to the passengers he crawls over – but never quite reaches.
A flurry of stupendously quirky souls wrestle for attention on Day 2, including the bang out bonkers comedy female trio, Eggs Collective. All three of these female have just the right combination of guts and humility needed to create honest, unflinching and very funny theatre. The daddy of all these ballsy odd balls is Search Party, who bring their new show My Son and Heir to the Pulse Festival. On a stage that looks like Disney himself has vomited over, packed with balloons and toys and silly costumes, Pete Philips and Jodie Hawkes address the thorny and messy topic that is parenthood. Using Disney cartoons and Prince William and Kate Middleton as revealing points of comparison, Search Party hunt about – humorously and manically – for a sense of perspective and purpose.
Jodie picks up the petticoat of her dress, one skirt and then another and then another, until she almost topples over with the weight of Disney white wedding dress. The young parents crawl into an inflatable castle and find they can barely move. Pete, dressed as handsome young prince, mumbles his speech through a very silly looking suit of ‘shining’ armour. In one weird and brilliant scene, Jodie sits at her throne and is forced to eat a massive platter of peas. The potential cruelty of tradition – the absurdity of the roles that the royals and all parents are asked to play – comes tumbling out as Jodie, beaming her watery grin at the audience, pukes the peas all over a silver platter.
The Pulse Festival runs from 29th May – 7th June at the New Wolsey and venues around Ipswich.

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