The best (and worst) of Pulse Fringe Festival 2010

58 shows, 14 venues, over 17 days – Ipswich’s Pulse Fringe Festival 2010 was, as always, an eclectic mix of shows, some good, some bad and some indifferent. That’s what festivals are for, venues and audiences alike take a risk, some work and some don’t. Some are work in progress that need, and value, the audience feedback to take them to the next stage in development, and some are finished pieces that perhaps, on reflection, need more work.

So after seeing 20 out of the 58 offerings what is the overall trend this year?

Writers were tackling a variety of genres this year with topical subjects featuring heavily; a sign of theatre’s ability to tackle difficult and pressing social issues; Climate change, terrorism, racism, belonging all making an appearance.

So what worked and what didn’t? What were the good, the bad and the indifferent?

Let’s start with the good

With such a diverse range of shows on offer it is difficult to select a best show and there are several shows vying for the title. A varied selection – some drama, some performance art, and some immersive theatre.

  • Sus – a chilling, at times painful viewing but utterly gripping
  • True Love Waits – clever, humorous new writing
  • Everything Must Go – moving, personal affirmation of family love
  • Reykjavik – totally immersive multi-sensory experience
  • Catcher – disturbed journey into the mind of a killer
  • Wolf – evocative and original use of unique space
  • So who gets the ‘best in show’ gong?

All six shows above feature on my must see recommendation list, Sus, Reykjavik and Wolf all came within a whisker of grabbing the prize but after much deliberation and changing of mind several times the award goes to …… Catcher.
Pilot Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal have produced a piece that holds the attention throughout. Writing and direction are first class but it is the performances that stick in the memory, especially Ronan Summers chillingly intense performance as John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman. Catcher has had a small tour but deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

So what didn’t work?

Part of the risk in festival work is that what may sound a good idea on paper doesn’t quite translate on stage. Now some of these shows are in the early stages of development, so some may think that critiquing is unfair, however for any art form to succeed it needs to find its audience and if it can’t do that in its current form some tweaking is needed.

Some of the ‘misses’ this time included:

  • Liquorice and Smoke Rings –complex timeline and live underscoring make for confusing viewing
  • The Ten Commandments – more variety and less preaching needed
  • Rain from a Dry Sky – business speak doesn’t necessarily make good drama
  • Bunny – vivid script would work better as a novel
  • Tales from the Bar of Lost Souls – a French Film Noir better suited to the screen
  • Sex Idiot – debate on if this was real or a parody – either way totally awful

And the ‘Worst in show’ gong goes to….

For the Worst in show gong there is simply no debate; though in fact Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot has generated some debate. Debate over if the show is a parody of bad taste, badly performed Performance Art or is genuinely bad. Whatever the answer it still doesn’t justify this show.

Debate has also been centred around feedback on the show and the venues decision to take risks with programming. Yes of course the festival should take risks, particularly in late night slots such as this; however risk is a two-way process and with artistic risk also comes the risk of adverse reaction.

Of course critical opinion is subjective but (hopefully) based on knowledge of the arts and their potential to enrich life. It is much easier to write reviews that claim everything is wonderful but that devalues not only the performer but also the audience.

Overall….

So ten festivals on and Pulse has grown beyond all recognition from the festival I attended in 2001 and now offers a huge variety of shows. Although the festival is now seen in a way as a rehearsal ground for Edinburgh, perhaps Pulse works best when it focusses more on pieces being developed for a wider audience and not just for Edinburgh.

For performers appearing at the Festival they do need to think about marketing themselves more effectively – it has been difficult to review several shows this year as no cast details have been provided. It is difficult to showcase your work if people don’t know who you are! In the intranet age, yes research can be done online, but audiences (and reviewers) may not have the time in a busy festival schedule to search for your details.

Applications will soon open for Pulse 2011 and will again, I’m sure, offer another couple of manic and thought provoking weeks in 2011.

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