For a short period over May and June, under the colourful banner of PULSE, Ipswich becomes a surprising artistic hub. The emphasis nurtured by festival director Emma Bettridge is one of variety, offering a rich taster of new and unfinished contemporary theatre from across the UK and occasionally beyond. With such variety and such a quantity of scratch performances comes inevitably mixed quality; a lucky dip of theatrical offerings, audience members have to be willing to get stuck in and see what they emerge with. The startling rewards, such as a lyrical and movingly intimate extract from Fergus Evans’ my heart is hitchhiking down peach tree street performed to an audience of four in a camper van, are all the more delighting as a result.
Watching work in progress is often an experience of discovery, one that requires greater attention from its audience but occasionally offers up rough gems. Some, like Joseph Mercier’s oddly mesmerising Good Boy, a tender blend of Jean Genet inspired monologue and minimalist gestures illuminated by pulsing lights, feel like splinters broken from larger pieces of work. Others are consciously messy, courting their own incompleteness with knowing humour. Tatty-Del Are Making It Work, a sketchy exploration of friendship by artistic collaborators and best friends Natalie and Hana, falls into this latter category. The pair draw attention to the scripts clutched in their hands like comfort blankets, acknowledging from the off that this show, similarly to the working relationship that so nearly fell apart and that provides their inspiration, is still in development. While they may not quite be making it work yet, intriguing ideas can be plucked from the creative debris.
An equally messy offering from stand-up comedian Sara Pascoe, Emily’s Very Sad Play, also manages to nudge at interesting ideas in a way that some more finished works such as Tom Marshman’s ego-centric solo show Legs 11 fail to achieve. Emily, the character Pascoe has created, is an insecure and unstable figure who is unable to separate literature from reality, capturing fascinating ideas about truth, lies and the ubiquity of fiction, not to mention touching upon notions of female identity. Identity is also central to Buttercup, Tom Wainwright’s hilarious and incisive examination of our obsession with reality TV and pseudo-fame. In the final joyous offering of the festival’s second weekend, meanwhile, Little Bulb attempt to help us find out who we are through their wild, energetic, gloriously messy musical stylings.
PULSE is one of the most ambitious festivals of its kind outside the two Goliaths of Edinburgh and Brighton
Away from the main spaces of the New Wolsey Theatre and Studio, where the majority of the shows are presented, this year also sees the creation of the Campsite. This quirky little performance zone pitched up just down the road from the New Wolsey Studio offers experimental, intimate performances in camper vans and tents, with everything from performance lectures to interactive experiences to short films. In one caravan a stranger offers to tell you a secret, while next door other festival-goers are embracing their inner child in a raucous ode to Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. It is an appealing idea, but one that feels a little like a work in progress itself, yet to attract the audience that would carry the party atmosphere it so infectiously generates.
Stretched out over thirteen days and involving 52 different shows in various locations, PULSE is one of the most ambitious festivals of its kind outside the two Goliaths of Edinburgh and Brighton – an ambition that is to be admired in Bettridge, but that spreads its assets a little thin. While it is exciting to see such a range of work in the programme, a more concentrated approach may have served the festival better and attracted greater audiences over a shorter, more focused period. Such quibbles aside, however, what is laudable is that artists are given this space to try – and on some occasions to fail – within the presence of an audience. Sometimes having the room to fail is just as important and as interesting as being given the platform on which to succeed.