This year's Pulse Festival is guest-produced by China Plate and you could feel a certain change in direction of the festival from previous years. Previously, Pulse was like an eclectic box of chocolates where sometimes you could find some real sweet surprises but, on the other hand, you could leave at the end of the night with a bitter taste.
This year there seems to be very much a focus on outreach and I noticed some of the box office staff quizzing the audience on why they had attended. This did make Pulse feel like an enormous focus group; however, many of the performances that are reviewed were at capacity or sold-out with a waiting list which bodes well for the viability of such festivals.
Relevance to modern society is a key theme of Pulse and one of the first offerings of the festival was Daniel Bye's Six O'Clock News. In this production, Daniel Bye, members of the New Wolsey Young Company and other artistes produced a show based on the news that they had read in the last couple of days. Some of the material had the juvenile pretentious quality of a first-term drama school production while other segments powerfully exposed issues such as the protests in Turkey and political lobbying.
Another strong production was Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe's work-in-progress I Wish I Was Lonely. In this participatory show about contactability, Hannah and Chris overturn theatrical etiquette and ask their audience to leave their mobile phones on and to answer them if they rang.
In addition to stories, poems and other audience participation exercises, they made some powerful points about how mobile phones have changed our relationships both with each other and ourselves. While this show is labelled as work-in-progress, the fluid way that both Hannah and Chris weave together poetry, stories and audience participation creates an engaging experience that both entertains and informs. Having reviewed The Oh F*** moment, last year, I believe this work shows that Hannah and Chris have both grown as artistes since then.
Chris Goode in The Forest and the Field also delivers some excellent insight into the audience's condition. In this piece of story-telling, Tom Ross-Williams performs a variety of speeches from (mostly) Shakespeare's works with poise and brings a certain relevance to these passages to today's world while Chris Goode provides a narrative context which encourages the audience to investigate what exactly their role is in the theatre.
However, Pulse has not been all gut-wrenching soul-searching. Major Tom by the light-hearted Victoria Melody uplifts her audience by performing a piece along with her dog Major Tom. Previously in her piece Northern Soul she had perfected a formula of immersing herself in specialist communities and then making comedy, drama and video from this. However, this time, rather than having to relocate herself to the grim north, Victoria documents the trials she faced as she attempts to climb the beauty pageant podium first starting as Mrs Brighton and then entering the final of Mrs UK. Similarly, she also compares her challenges to that of her dog as he tries to win various dog-show titles before eventually reaching the finals of Crufts.
Similarly, Ursula Martinez on the final night of Pulse exposes (in more ways than one) the consequences of how the internet can affect your life. She had previously performed a nude magic act that had been filmed without her consent and which then gained widespread distribution on the internet. In this two-halved performance piece, Ursula challenges how the public perception can vastly differ from the private personality that a performer has and her natural humour and wit carries this piece while challenging the audience to think about fame in the internet age.
Finally, Mark Thomas provided an excellent mixture of comedy and tragedy on the closing night of Pulse with his comedy gig that then metamophises into a moving piece of multimedia story-telling about how he manages to convince the English National Opera to perform at his parents' bungalow in honour of his father who was slowly losing the battle against a degenerative disease. The audience was in Mark's hands throughout the night as he initially made them laugh constantly to the end where he left them with lump-filled throats which led to a standing ovation from some of the audience.
To sum up, this year's Pulse Festival is like an exotic brand of chocolates in the supermarket: there are less surprises with more quality control. New talent is nurtured but the festival seems to have lost its fringe edge and while there has been some solid performances by established artists and some interesting works in progress, the taste bud-tingling truffle in the chocolate box seems to be missing this year.
While there was much acceptable theatre this year, there was nothing of the calibre of Hannah Silva's Opposition, one of last year's real highlights. It will be interesting to see how Pulse develops in future years.