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Pulse Festival 2014 – Part Two

Small has never been more profitable than with Pulse's Suitcase Prize – £1,000 for the best company whose production can be taken as hand-held luggage on public transport.

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Lucy Rivers ("The Bloody Ballad")

This year's Suitcase Prize winner is Antler with Copy, a show about frustration, invisibility, impersonation, vicariousness and narcissism. There were ten companies short-listed. Antler will use the prize to develop the piece further into a fully fledged piece of theatre. The judges were producer David Micklem, Julie's Bicycle's Yasmine Ostendorf, and New Wolsey Young Associate Gemma Raw.

In 2013, the winner was Two Destination Language with Near Gone, a piece devised and performed by two actors – Katherina Radeva and Alister Lownie. It tells a deceptively simple story of loss and redemption through words spoken and sung in Bulgarian and English, a stage full of white carnations, music and dance. It's a tale of two lovers with a tragedy-tinged shadow at its core, a twist at the end and genuine heartache before that.

You expect the off-beat at Pulse and Search Party certainly provided that with My Son and Heir, a riff by Jodie Hawkes and Pete Phillips with words by Ben Francombe on a certain royal wedding and the subsequent birth of a son. It's the second in a projected series examining issues of togetherness and the arrival of children, all with a political edge.

Like it or not, we do live in a competitive world. Made in China's Gym Party examines this through three friends – Chris, Jess and Ira – with the audience voting which of them succeeds best at a series of physical games– the sort you come across in any secondary school. The loser, however, is progressively subjected to greater and greater humiliation. It's sharp-edged and oh-so-dangerously beguiling.

Lectures, well or fake, are a feature of some performances. Brian Lobel invites his audience to discard or keep various "friends" from Facebook. It's called Purge, and is well-named. It's also enough to put you off social media for ever. There's a more serious purpose, however, behind World Factory: The Shop and World Factory: The Shirt.

Over the past couple of years, we have become aware, though a succession of tragedies on other continents that there is a price to be paid for cheap clothes which are bought, worn and then thrown away (or sometimes even recycled).

Metis director Zoë Svendsen and artist Simon Daw have collaborated with Shanghai theatre director Zhao Chuan to have a shirt they have designed made in a Chinese factory. But a barcode which can be accessed through a bespoke app will track every part of the process.

Balance of a different sort comes into play with Nick Steur's Freeze. Pristine reflective glass cubes bisect the performance space, around which the audience sits in company with a variety of stones, both large and small. From these, Steur creates finely-balanced sculptures, a sort of Easter Island collection of artefacts whose purpose is unclear. It's all a little unnerving, to say the least.

Can parents and children really let go of each other? When does the support role-reversal start? Selma Dimitrijevic explores this to fine effect in Gods Are Fallen And All Safety Gone with Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull as the fussing mother and impatient daughter. It's low-key, as befits the company's name of Greyscale, but intensely credible, and ultimately very moving.

That is true also of Selina Thompson's Chewing the Fat. She has an infectiously welcoming personality, as we see her initially festooned with balloons, the symbol of binge-eating and the weight problems to which that leads. The balloons are punctured as the show progresses and we're drawn into a lifestyle of junk food snatched on the run and midnight ventures into the bowels of the refrigerator.

Certainly, there's a lesson – you might almost say, a moral – here, but it's put over with minimal preaching, considerable skill and great theatricality. New Art Club – no, it's not a place, it's two performers – invites you to consider what you Feel About Your Body. It's meant to be slick but just ends up as being silly.

Not something you can say about The Bloody Ballad from Gabblebabble, in which a sort of Lizzie Borden story, set in the bleak industrial north of the United States during the 1950s comes to gory, and vivid, musical life before us. The name of Mary's on-stage band – The Missing Fingers – is an obvious clue.

This is written and performed by Lucy Rivers with an extremely competent set of musicians and directed by Adele Thomas. It made, through its sheer vitality, a fine climax to ten days of interesting performance which nobody can say didn't challenge perceptions.