The PULSE Festival is 10 this year and from the promising programme it’s boasting it seems to only be improving with age. Peppered around the city in a variety of venues from pubs and hotels to studio theatres and town halls, performances in all shapes and forms are popping up in front of an eclectic Ipswich audience. It is an audience that is encouragingly full of not only theatre fans, but families too and even, whisper it with me now, some curious locals.
Festival Director, Steve Freeman wisely opens with shows from local practitioners and companies as well as international artists. Over the years he has successfully steered PULSE as a festival which pays homage to its roots whilst placing itself firmly both on the national and international stage. It is also a place of discovery; strong ties to the excellent Escalator East programme facilitating that scratch performances get to sit alongside more established pieces. Known hits such as Ontroerend Goed’s Internal and Dafydd James and Ben Lewis’ gorgeously surreal My Name Is Sue mingle comfortably with rehearsed readings from playwrights Jack Thorne, Tena Stivicic and local boy Andrew Burton. Meanwhile companies Tin Horse Theatre and Analogue are creating new immersive experiences for us to dip our toes into, Leo Kay and Ross Sutherland are at the forefront of a wave of spoken word performances and 6.0’s poignant and inventive show How Heap And Pebble Took On The World is just one of a cavalcade of whimsical, devised pieces. Oh and there’s work from Transport, Hydrocracker, Pilot Theatre, Tangram Theatre Company, Fanshen, Paines Plough, Nabokov, Young Vic, Theatre Ad Infinitum and You Need Me. So quite a lot then.
I start off with a thought provoking rehearsed reading of migration drama Invisible by Transport and then onto a number of solo shows where an autobiographical theme begins to emerge. This solipsism seems to work better for some than others; Bryony Kimmings enraging several people with her show Sex Idiot (although not from shock but irritation) and Shams’ Reykjavik, whilst being visually dexterous, feeling coolly bland and slightly mopey.
But successes are to be found in Sutherland’s intelligent comedy piece The Three Stigmata of Pac-Man, his laidback charm, flashes of fury and eloquent satire combining in a show that delights his jam-packed audience and should definitely be a big hit at this year’s Edinburgh. An even more pitch perfect example of a piece that isn’t drowned by a personal outlook is 30 Bird Productions’ Poland 3 and Iran 2. A tender cross between a performance lecture, football match, slideshow and art installation, performers Mehrdad Seyf and Chris Dobrowolski completely win over a packed Ipswich pub of children and adults alike.
After so much soul searching it is quite a relief to round up the weekend with Keepers, The Plasticine Men’s quizzical and handsomely orchestrated story of two ‘Thomases’ stuck in a lighthouse set far off the Welsh coast. This is a show that shimmers with charm and skill and Lawrence Williams’ live soundscape is brilliantly impressive.
But the highlight of my festival by a long way is Ontroerend Goed’s Internal. Much spoken of, this intimate engagement more than lives up to its enormous reputation. I haven’t been more exhilarated by theatre for a long time.
If you haven’t guessed it already, there really is a lot to tempt people to Suffolk and as Sutherland’s sold out gig attests, the organisers are clearly doing something right. PULSE may not be on the scale of Edinburgh but for vibrancy and richness of programming it more than matches this Goliath of the festival scene.
Written for Whats On Stage. Pulse runs until 12 June and for a full programme go to www.pulsefringe.com