PULSE has got off to a great start. I was flying solo for PULSE’s opening night as Maddie was off being a talented saxophonist and I’m afraid to say I think she missed out.
Knot had the tough job of opening the festival but it is safe to say they did a seamless job. I could have watched the acrobatic duo for at least double the time I did. I was especially amazed by Nikki’s upper body strength, I struggle to do a single push-up, and from the exclamations from the audience around me, I am pretty sure I was not the only one impressed. It really makes you appreciate what the human body can do, particularly when Nikki was supporting JD on top of her shoulders! It was great seeing the intimate relationship between Nikki and JD without the need of loads of dialogue as their physicality said so much. JD’s comical timing was a nice bonus however. Edge-of-the-seat theatre.
Next on the programme was Hoipolloi’s Me & Robin Hood. I had seen Hoipolloi’s previous show The Duke at last year’s PULSE so felt I was going in less blind than I had with Knot but I find that is half the fun with PULSE. Although Me & Robin Hood was story telling with a lot more talking than Knot some similarities did surprisingly pop out at me: they both featured the performers’ relationship with their fathers and also made you think about what on stage was really the truth. Between the bank robberies and the Anglesey under 11s league final I hope there was some truth to Shôn Dale-Jones’s story but on reflection it was rather outlandish. Shôn Dale-Jones excelled in making you laugh one minute and then managing to change the tone in the blink of an eye to really make you think about issues you’d prefer not to. The show was also raising money for a great cause to help children in poverty with Street Child United.
Overall an exciting and eclectic start to PULSE 2018. I can’t wait to see so much more.
If you enjoy the sound of Knot, you will love Moonfall. Fan of Me & Robin Hood? Don’t miss Education, Education, Education or The Audit!
Next stop: Suitcase Day!
To celebrate Pulse Festival’s 18th birthday, this year we have asked two of our 18 year old Young Company members to see as many PULSE shows as they can, and blog about their thoughts.
Check in each afternoon to see what they’ve been getting up to and what they think of our #PULSE18 shows!
I am Ellie and a member of the New Wolsey Young Company.
I joined the New Wolsey Youth Theatre for what is probably getting on for almost ten years ago now! It’s been great growing and learning with the Wolsey and I have enjoyed so many experiences from performing in the various Youth perform festivals over the years and being part of the cast in Through the Looking Glass as well as working with great practitioners and alongside other companies like Gecko and Shunt.
On top of that I also get to see so much theatre and PULSE Festival is one of my favourite times of the year. I especially can’t wait to celebrate PULSE’s 18th Birthday this year – it is funny to think PULSE and I are the same age!
So many shows have jumped out at me from the programme, but I am particularly looking forward to seeing last year’s suitcase prize winner James McDermott’s Rubber Ring and fellow Young Company members’ show Nice Guys by People You May Know Theatre Company.
My name is Maddie and I am member of the New Wolsey Young Company.
New Wolsey has been a massive part of my life and I have been a part of the youth theatre since the age of 7. I have had the most incredible opportunities to perform on stage, being in the cast for two New Wolsey Youth Theatre productions (Through The Looking Glass and The Wind In The Willows) as well as all the wonderful Youth Perform festivals!
I have also had the opportunity to see some of the best pieces of theatre right on the New Wolsey stage and during Pulse! Pulse 2018 is nearly here and I couldn’t be more excited! Pulse is an incredible 10 day festival with the opportunity to watch and enjoy so much fresh, new and stunning pieces of theatre!
There are so many pieces I already can’t wait to see including Rubber Ring by James McDermott who was the winner of last year’s suitcase prize. Nice Guys by People You May Know presenting their take on modern men facing their identity crisis.
I will also be attending my first scratch day to see the beginnings of some incredible shows! I can’t wait to see another year of individual’s incredible work at Pulse!
And that was that.
When I arrived in Ipswich, eleven days ago, I was keen to find the festival part of Pulse – the spirit of celebration and community. I found it in a few different places along the way: The feeling of connection with the faces I know from London, from work, and from the internet, and the weird way in which we reintroduce ourselves to one another when we’re in an out-of-context location. Then there’s community in the rock solid team of the New Wolsey’s youth theatre, the hardcore of which were watching every single show (those they weren’t performing in anyhow). And I’ve loved discovering Ipswich’s Mr Fabulous, who arrived at lunchtime queer cabaret from Milk Presents in top hat, cane, and Vivienne Westwood coat. Legend.
On leaving Ipswich though, I’m thinking more about identity than community. Festival programming is a complicated thing, and increasingly has to balance work that will push boundaries and blow minds with work that lots of people, y’know, actually want to come and see. Pulse sets itself a further challenge too: that the work will be ‘new’, which it mainly is. That which isn’t new-new is certainly new-ish. But what a gamble it is. Programming shows in a festival that not only haven’t been seen before; they often haven’t actually been finished yet. It’s a wonder that anyone involved can sleep at night.
Of course, the work that Pulse and the New Wolsey do to support work at an early stage of development is invaluable to artists, and to future audiences too, most of whom won’t have a clue of the help and hard cash that has fed into the stuff they’re watching onstage. That is absolutely to be celebrated. Without it, and without other venues and festivals all over the UK doing the same, the cultural landscape would look very different indeed.
But I do wonder if the identity of the festival suffers for it, from a curatorial point of view. Seeing absolutely everything in a festival is a new experience for me (apologies to Spymonkey for skipping out at their interval – I’m f**king knackered), and it has highlighted the extent to which I’m always cherrypicking the parts of a programme that interest me particularly. Left to my own devices, I would probably have booked for Jamal Harewood, Nigel & Louise, Third Angel, Breach, and Ursula Martinez, and ignored the rest. I would have missed the simmering threat of The Going Away Days, and the meta-theatricality of Vincent Gambini, both of which were electrifying, but I’d probably also have been spared a lot of the crap. Scary Shit, Hair Peace and Nel are all works that deserve to be seen… just not by me.
That said, the variety on offer at Pulse is a positive in many ways. Of course it’s healthy that there is something for everyone. But, really, isn’t it important that there is something for everyone at the New Wolsey year-round? Thankfully, there is – it’s got a great programme – but if you’re going to group certain works together in a 10-day festival within that year-round programme, you need to give it a clear identity. To give one example, at lunchtime today, in This Is What Men Do, Nigel Barratt and Louise Mari led a group of community performers in a brutal, searing and emotionally exhausting recital of several thousand years’ worth of male violence. They held microphones, spoke steadily, and ate calmly around a Last Supper-style dinner table, quietly attacking one of the fundamental hierarchies of global society, and bringing at least half their audience to tears. At the other end of the day, the festival was brought to a close with some clowning.
A festival is one of those golden opportunities for theatremakers, and for venue management too. Presenting so much work in such a concentrated time, you can encourage audience members to take a chance on things that they would never normally make a trip out for, were it standing alone in another weeknight schedule. And then I know people who just blanket book everything in some festivals, because they trust the programmers so deeply. They don’t bother reading the brochure, checking the website. Now, I’m hugely thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to spend the last week and a half in Ipswich, and see so much work by so many different artists, but can I describe the quintessential Pulse show to you? Can I f**k. No idea. Can I see the similarities between something like the new Gecko piece, and Some People Talk About Violence by Barrel Organ? Or between The Wardrobe Ensemble and Jamal Harewood? Not really, no. And did I like it all? Definitely not. I loved some of it – properly adored some of it – but those 5 or 6 totally killer experiences got a bit lost in a programme of nearly 50 shows.
Big, multi-artform festivals often ‘badge’ the work in their brochures, don’t they? Like, green means for kids and orange means interactive and blue means something else. There has been an element of that at Pulse this year, with Suitcase Day and Scratch Day and Dance Day, but we’ve seen scratches and dance pieces on other days too, and then it turned out that one of the acts on Suitcase Day wasn’t actually in the Suitcase Prize, and one of the Dance Day pieces barely had any dancing in it, and it all got a bit confusing. Much better, maybe, to say that Pulse is predominantly a festival of works-in-development, or which are at the very beginning of their life. Or to leave that stuff out altogether, present scratch work at the New Wolsey in a different context, and instead bring the intelligent, small-scale works of touring theatre together – things like The Preston Bill, and Woman’s Hour, and The Beanfield, and The Future of Sex – to build Pulse into something that the people of Ipswich (and beyond) will recognise as being not only of a certain politics, but of a certain standard.
It’s slightly harsh of me to say this. Some critics regularly commit this crime – to do a work down because, simply, they wished it was something else – and it’s not escaped me that in having to write something every day during my stay in Ipswich, I’ve inched a little too close to the treadmill life of your average lobotomised reviewer, desperately trying to pull something out of their arse at 9am, before the show schedule kicks off again. Having the freedom to write in a flexible format is a gift for which I am forever grateful, but the option to keep my f**king trap shut is sadly off the table. So, with that in mind, let’s finish on a high, and give a series of shout-outs to the works – many of which mentioned on this blog already – which brought joy into my Pulse experience.
Let’s hear it for Shakti Gomez and the Zebra Cross dance; The Hiccup Project and their teenage friendship; free pizza from Barrel Organ; Ursula Martinez walking naked into the street; Sh!t Theatre fucking with your Kinder Eggs; Breach, and the full body rush of emotion I got before The Beanfield had properly even started. Let’s hear it for the fact that I’m still remembering little clever bits that I’d overlooked in This Is Not A Magic Show, and the relief that someone else volunteered to get naked in a bag with Jamie Wood (the relief). Let’s hear it for Annie Siddons shaking off her walrus, and the millions who died in the making of This Is What Men Do. Let’s hear it for Bill, from Preston. Let’s hear it for Mr Fabulous, from Ipswich.
When Ursula Martinez first starting slopping her cement around last night, the guy next to me said “oooh, that’s a good mix”.
Which was reassuring for me, as watching ill-executed manual tasks is one of the worst possible ways to spend one’s time. I’ve seen some terrible theatrical mopping in my time, let me tell you. The stress of witnessing bad bricklaying could only be worse.
To be fair to Martinez, shoddier walls have probably been built. This one looked sturdy enough, and obviously my neighbour had already vouched for the consistency of the cement. But after all that dear reader, I’m afraid to say that the rows were just too wonky, and the trowelling too inconsistent, for me to award a rosette.
Honestly though? I couldn’t give a fuck about how neat the wall was; I was just happy to see someone make some art with a half-decent design idea. Earlier in the day we’d seen another wishy-washy folksy thing about space and the internet, complete with loop pedals and Carl Sagan quote and some fucking piffle about connecting with one another, and then a perfectly well-intentioned piece about the EU referendum that was just one mediocre conversation after another. I’ve been quite upbeat about the work in Pulse this year – I know that when you set out to see every single thing in the festival, you’ll have to take the rough with the smooth – but by about half nine last night I was just so desperate for somebody to have an idea. Just one idea. Any idea! Didn’t matter that Ursula Martinez built a wonky wall; what mattered was that she provided something to think about, and something to look at.
Its simplicity is deceptive. Free Admission is essentially just a woman bricking herself up behind a wall as she talks about the things that piss her off, but the magnitude of those things is hugely varied. Irritations about social media and the minutiae of her relationships are thrown together, apparently flippantly, with instances of misogynistic abuse, racism, and widespread global injustices. Her nonchalant, eyebrow-raised delivery gives us permission to laugh, until we realise what we’re laughing at. No line here is unrehearsed or throwaway; as a structure, it’s carefully positioned.
And like the man said: “a good mix”.
I’m a terrible dance critic. For starters, I don’t know what any of the proper moves are so haven’t the first clue if they’re being done right. I generally form, ahem, strong attachments to charismatic male performers, skewing my objectivity completely, and regardless of gender, I basically love everything as soon as they put a half-decent song on.
And there were loads of good tunes in May-We-Go-Round by the Hiccup Project, so I was fucking loving it. Craig David, Spice Girls, Cher, Hall and Oates… all the classics. But, before you all start with the critical distance shit, I swear there was more to it than that.
Teenage girls are difficult to represent accurately in art. Actually, no, that’s not true. That should read: Artists often find it difficult to accurately represent teenage girls in their art. A lot of the time that’s because artists – or should I say, artists whose work is given prominence – are men, and have never observed a teenage girl from anything other than the male perspective. With that framing, teenage girls become these magical, unknowable, muse figures, until their unknowableness turns to frustration and they are instead presented as surly, unthinking bitches, powered by hormones and hate.
When women make art about teenage girls, it’s often shot through with this kind of warm regret. Not motherly exactly, but with a sense of ‘oh, wasn’t I silly back then’, or ‘here’s what I’d do differently now’. I can’t think of many works that recall the heteronormative teenage girl experience as the mixture of joy and excitement and insecurity and heartbreak that it is. At that age, everything is simultaneously a rehearsal for reality and THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED AND WILL EVER HAPPEN. Friendships are total, and fallings-out are totaller. And sex is like this magnetic cloud that wafts around your body, twenty four hours a day.
The sex thing is possibly why it’s so difficult – slash problematic – to talk about teenage girls onstage. That Lolita image has permeated too much in the past. A ‘blossoming’ pubescent body, and the feelings within in, are dangerous territory when young women are still regularly objectified and abused. It’s almost impossible to do sensitively when you’re not an actual teenage girl, and if you are, it’s far too fraught – bursting with potential disaster.
May-We-Go-Round is refreshing in that it’s two adult women revisiting their teenage friendship and schooldays boyfriends, but without (apparently) rewriting history. If there is residual break-up awkwardness, they say so and move on, and if there are regrets, they’re presented from both angles – the justification at the time, and the realisation now. Dance is a perfect artwork for depicting youthful exuberance, but it’s also the perfect artform for depicting that constant magnetic cloud of sex that hangs around a teenager’s body, and the way that the version in the imagination is almost always better than the real thing.
Suffolk – A number of unpublished letters to Jackie magazine’s infamous agony aunts Cathy and Claire has been discovered in an Ipswich attic today, leading to speculation that the anonymous advice columnists were, in fact, one lady – the late Geraldine Cooper, ex-teaching assistant and grandmother of five.
Here at the New Wolsey Theatre, we’ve been granted exclusive access to the rare haul before experts arrive to certify its authenticity. Here, we publish a selection as a companion to last night’s show by The Wardobe Ensemble – 1972: The Future of Sex.
You might think this is a silly problem but I promise you it is becoming a living nightmare.
I am 14 and I have been going out with my boyfriend for three and a half months. Everything is going really well and he is an excellent kisser, but I feel really embarrassed to be seen with him in front of other people.
You see, he refuses to wear flared trousers, and only has straight-legged corduroys. He says that he’s not going to stop wearing perfectly good trousers just because of fashion, like he’s my dad or something! Deep down I know that looks don’t matter, but I just want to go out in public with him and not have people point and laugh.
Tell me – should I end it with him?
Please help – I think I’m a freak and I don’t know what to do about it.
Last weekend I was in my best friend Janet’s bedroom with her, listening to David Essex records and crocheting, which isn’t out of the ordinary at all, when she started dancing. It was really funny – we don’t normally dance, apart from at school ceilidhs – so I got up and started dancing too.
But then, after a while, Janet gave me a kiss, and it wasn’t like a friend kiss – it was like a boyfriend kiss. And I thought it felt… just brilliant. But I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye so I got my jacket and went straight home but I can’t stop thinking about how I want Janet to kiss me again.
What should I do? I can’t tell anyone about this ever, ever, ever.
A worried David Essex fan.
In one of my most common dreams, I’m in a theatre watching a play, but it’s so much better than normal plays. It’s like looking back on now, from the future. It’s incredible, like they’re saying that today – 1972 – is going to be a turning point for our sexual politics, and that Ziggy Stardust will make boys and girls feel able to be honest about their likes dislikes and differences. In the dream I’m always playing the part of the girl who becomes so disappointed when she finds a forward-thinking, feminist lover, but he turns out to be just as selfish in bed as the rest of them…
This might be the daftest letter you’ve ever received, but I’m so scared that I won’t ever be able to achieve sexual satisfaction and join the new liberated generation that I dream about. The thought is terrifying. Please tell me what I can do to empower myself? How can I break free from the chains of patriarchy?
A: Have you seen this one before? It says it’s ‘not a magic show’.
B: I saw bits of it. He was doing a little excerpt at a night I went to last year, trying out tricks. And it is.
A: It is what?
B: A magic show. It’s just a magic show. I’m a bit confused about why it keeps appearing on these theatre programmes to be honest. Ha, d’you dare me to start correcting the posters? Bring out my marker pen, like THIS IS TOO JUST A MAGIC SHOW. Ha!
A: Definitely don’t do that.
B: That was great.
A: That was great.
B: That bit where all the cards were jumbled up but then they weren’t… That bit with the aces…
A: My favourite bit was the bit where he talked about how jaded we all were and how even ACTUAL MAGIC doesn’t have a massive effect on audiences anymore because we’re all so cynical…
B: What? Don’t look at me like that.
A: ”Yes it is just a magic show. I’m going to get my marker pen out and write all over his posters.”
A: That’s you, that is.
B: Well, okay. Obviously I’m not going to be a massive dick about this. I can appreciate that what he was doing was more than just magic. He was playing with our expectations of structure to make a comment on the nature of performing, and of distrust.
A: You mean you admit that you were wrong?
B: Well, no. It is just a magic show. All magicians construct a show to build some kind of response in their audience. Just because Vincent Gambini’s was a little more self-aware, does not mean it wasn’t a magic show. It’s still a stupid title.
A: Yeah whatever.
A: Okay, I’m sorry, but what about that bit where he read out the audience response to a trick before he even did the trick?! That is so much more than ‘just’ a magic show!!!
B: Yeah, fair dos, that was good.
A: ‘Good’?! It was more than ‘good’! It was near-genius theatricality!
B: Like Columbo.
A: It was an example of— hang on. What?
B: Columbo. It was like an episode of Columbo.
A: An episode of Columbo?
B: Yeah. In Columbo – right? – you see the murderer doing the murder – right? Or, if not actually doing the actual murdering, you see them setting it up and covering their tracks and doing all this weird suspicious shit with gloves on. Right?
A: Right. I guess.
A: I have literally no idea why you think Vincent Gambini is like that.
B: Well, in Columbo, the one thing you know for certain is that Peter Falk is gonna show up, get bad vibes from the killer in, like, 2 seconds flat, then spend 90 minutes squinting at secretaries until he’s worked out what’s what. We know that’s gonna happen. In Gambini’s show, we know that’s he’s gonna do magic. Whatever stupid name he’s given his show, we know he’s gonna do magic. We know this because his conversation is so theatrical. I mean, the opening moments have him talking about himself in the third person and apparently rehearsing. We never believe that a trick hasn’t worked, because we have been primed to treat the entire thing as a work of fiction. We know, from the very start, that this is not real, but that, nevertheless, ‘magic’ is gonna happen.
A: Well then, if that’s the case, every train journey you ever take is also “just like Columbo”, because you know where its headed before you leave the station.
B: Don’t be so basic. If Columbo was like a train journey, no-one would watch it. The important thing about Columbo is that the route is not predictable. Those weird, suspicious actions enacted by the killer at the start of the episode are both loaded with meaning – ie: that guy definitely did it and is 100% the killer – and strangely void of meaning – ie: what is he doing with that umbrella and record player? Why is he re-recording that voicemail? Why is he gonna kill a dude that he was just being so nice to? What the fuck is even happening, basically.
A: So that bit in the magic show where Vincent Gambini reads out the audience response before he even does the trick… That bit’s like a killer in Columbo, doing all his prep?
B: Yes, but so’s everything else here too. Remember the bit when the woman at the back shouted out about the fish?
A: Yeah, course.
B: Why d’you think she did that?
A: Because he’d shown us the fish before, and said that the fish would do a dance at the end…
B: Exactly. He’s telling us, every step of the way, what is gonna happen. The woman at the back had remembered the fish – she knew the fish dance was coming, and was excited to see it. So she called out for it.
A: Okay, okay, so Vincent Gambini is like Columbo. Fine. But how come we still don’t know how he did those things?
B: Interestingly, it’s because he’s not actually like Columbo at all.
A: I hate you so much sometimes.
B: No, really. This Is Not A Magic Show is like Columbo The TV Show, but Vincent Gambini is is not Columbo The Detective. That’s why my point stands – that after all this, it is a magic show after all.
B: The whole point of Columbo The Detective turning up in Columbo The TV Show, is to provide motive. That’s what the audience are missing from the start. That’s why the killer’s actions are confusing to begin with. That’s why you’re compelled to watch. Without the ‘why’, you can’t know the ‘how’.
A: But I still don’t know how!
B: Yes you do. He even says in that bit about the guy with the beard. He doesn’t actually mix all the cards up. He just makes it look like he does. Remember that bit? The “I’m not a wizard” bit?
A: Yes, but I saaaaw him.
B: No you didn’t.
A: But I did though.
B: You think you saw him, because you never had Columbo around to reveal his motive. You became compelled by the theatricality of his actions, his storytelling, which all seemed to point to a natural conclusion, several natural conclusions: the performance of magic. But that wasn’t his motive.
A: It wasn’t?
B: Of course not. Look at the title of the show.
A: But I thought you said the title was stupid!
B: Yeah, I take that back. I’ve thought about it a bit more now. Soz.
A: So what was his motive?
B: There are a few options I suppose. Maybe… to make an argument about high/low culture, about artsy snobbery, about the vulnerability of performers, about audience tolerances, about pretence and reality, about the aesthetic relationship, about apathy and cynicism in the face of wonder. Something like that. The one thing for certain though, is that his motive wasn’t to do magic.
A: How do you know?
B: Have you even been listening?! Because the title of the show is This Is Not A Magic Show! Because he stands there and tells us that it’s all pretend! Because magic isn’t real! That’s the intended ending of this show. That’s the killer being taken to prison. The tricks are just part of the set-up.
A: You are so jaded. Seriously, I have never met anyone as jaded as you before. You need to find a way to put some joy back into your life. You’ve just seen what is basically the most astonishing magic show of all time and all you can fucking talk about it that fact that it’s not real, and that we can’t trust nice things.
B: Well, we can’t. In this case anyhow.
A: I hate you.
We’ve reached the halfway point now, although in terms of work, we’re closer to the finish line than the start. Last weekend was packed with work – full days of scratches and almost back-to-back shows. Much of it has been lovely, really really nice. But while that makes for an enjoyable afternoon with a cider and a few mates, another festival visitor suggested that across the whole theatre industry, there was simply too much work being made that didn’t affect the world around it, didn’t leave any lasting mark on its audiences. There’s a fine line, after all, between ‘lovely’ and ‘inconsequential’.
Last night’s programme was different; totally energising. Two political works, and then a third which sticks two fingers up at classical acting. Fists it, basically.
The first was The Beanfield, by Breach, which I first saw in a really really early preview before last year’s Edinburgh. Back then, it was on an awkward stage in a too-small venue, and I think I mis-read the whole tone of the piece. I didn’t see what it was trying to say about pretence and remembering at all. Now, at the end of the show’s journey, and after many audience members had seen what I had missed, I got a genuine, physical full-body tingle as they read the string of emails that forms the first scene. The Beanfield is a show that mixes documentary filmmaking with historical re-enactment, and tells the story of the ‘battle’ of the beanfield, when a convoy of travellers on their way to Stonehenge for the 1985 summer solstice were attacked by police. Their homes burned and children taken away, the lo-fi DIY re-enactment by Breach loses none of its potency, and as I fought back tears, I realised that part of what made it so special is that none of these company members were even born in 1985. If those involved won’t right those wrongs, then a new generation must keep the story alive.
A Machine They’re Secretly Building, by Proto-type, is about the worldwide digital surveillance culture that began in the post-war period and boomed with the arrival of the internet. Our online data is being stored without our consent. Even before the guys at the New Wolsey post this online, a copy of it will sit in a huge data storage facility in Utah, because it’ll be taken right out of the email I send to Jeni and Jack from the theatre’s marketing team. Proto-type’s show is fascinating. It is heavy with information, and probably strongest when it represents facts over speculation, but is structured so well that it never feels like reading some dry essay. The space is well constructed too, with performers reading from what look like ‘top secret’ Cold War spy files from an old metal filing cabinet, but also live balaclava videos, like a Pussy Riot intervention. Simple but striking.
After that, it was back to another show that I haven’t seen since it was nowt but a work-in-progress. My first encounter with Barrel Organ’s Some People Talk About Violence had felt like witnessing alchemy; the magical formation of something right in front of you. I knew that the company were keen to mix up roles and swap members of the ensemble, but I think I’d always kinda assumed that something about the show would eventually become set, or fixed, or otherwise done. Not so. Some People Talk About Violence remains so fresh and relaxed and elastic. And joyful. Mixing up a story about depression with light-hearted skits and games isn’t just a pacing technique either – it’s representative of the weird, episodic nature of life; the way that someone living in a bubble can get pushed to the edges of everyone else’s narcissism. The girl is only ever in the peripheral vision of her family and friends, and her audience too. The fact that my abiding memory of last night will probably be the two cast members spitting biscuits at each other, is a replication of the way we turn away from sadness wherever we are.
These three shows – unflinching and important – have left me feeling totally recharged for this evening’s work. I kinda can’t believe I’ve never seen Sh!t Theatre before. So pumped to put that right.
Four days in and I’m not even really looking at the brochure anymore. Just tell me where to go and at what time and I’ll shuffle in and look straight ahead. Context is overrated anyway.
This time though, a cast of 13 ran from behind the curtain wearing Fila jackets and yelling football chants, and straight away I was like YES. Young lads mainly, playing working class roles with northern voices – too northern to work out which were real and which were performed. They were cocky and charming and angry and lost. Wanted to either fuck us or fuck us up. Or just show us their new trainers. The kind of lads that now you see in Maccy D’s, but back in the 80s, they were at the footy, beating the shit out of one another in organised ‘scraps’.
This story of a football ‘firm’ – a gang of lads, like a brotherhood, whose pride and masculinity was decided each Saturday afternoon – is not particularly challenging or conceptual, but fuck me it’s the first time my hairs have bristled so far this festival. The New Wolsey Studio was like a seething pit of aggression. Sweat and testosterone and warm lager. But then such smiley camaraderie as well, taking the piss and sticking up for your mates.
Geezers need excitement
If their lives don’t provide them this, they incite violence
Common sense, simple common sense
I don’t want to glamorise the violence in this play (and neither does the play; there’s a moral question asked, even if it not a particularly surprising one) but I do want to celebrate this young company’s ability to assault an audience with so much, and so completely. I mean, onstage violence is so often just embarrassing; it’s ridiculous and choreographed. Here, they achieve what they need to just by performing the tension and hostility (and humour, and vulnerability) that comes before that violence. As a result, the focus of this show is on the lads themselves, not their actions. But that violence somehow remains real.
Okay, so maybe the quieter moments aren’t quite as strong, and maybe the story has been heard before, but this is a rare example of a young ensemble boiling up filth, fury and family onstage, and representing young, conflicted, working class men with honesty and respect.
An unknown company with a cast of 13 is a tough sell to any venue or festival producer. Those train fares soon add up. The only reason this show is affordable for Pulse is that it was made in education, relatively locally. It’s off to Plymouth Fringe tomorrow. It’s not a flawless work of great art, but I really, really hope it gets a further life.
That’s the noise I make when I’m asked for feedback on a scratch performance.
It’s kinda one of the unspoken rules of this criticism. Artists want your feedback, either face-to-face or on little comment cards, but write a review – even a silly online one – and suddenly you’ve created this little Sliding Doors moment for that show. Actually, no, it’s not a Sliding Doors moment; it’s a case of one train leaving the station and one just sitting there, forever, idle and unwieldy; even the old copies of Metro refusing to age. You’ve frozen it, preserved it in some kind of cryogenic chemical from which it will never emerge. A moment of its making will live forever, against which it will always be measured. Good or bad, that feels like an unnecessary thing to do to a piece of art.
I usually try not to mention scratch work that I see. In any kind of permanent, public way anyhow. The Suitcase Prize yesterday was one thing – those guys had entered a competition with their unfinished work – but going on record about a small audience sharing feels a bit… dishonourable. Unless, of course, I have loved literally every single thing about a piece and desperately want to find a way for the artists to keep going, keep making, don’t give up. So much of these early ideas find a rehearsal room for a few days and then never get any further than that. But while I believe that at least 50% of finished shows should never have been made in the first place, I don’t think audiences – or critics – are always the best judge of which 50% should be aborted.
Today, I spoke to Jamal Harewood after the sharing of his Word work-in-progress. I am a fan of Jamal Harewood. I am, like, a capital letters level FAN of Jamal Harewood. I think his earlier piece, The Privileged, is one of the most important pieces of performance ever made, and this new one is shaping up to be even more discomforting. Crucially discomforting. But when I was asking Jamal about his plans for the work, and about the way the success of The Privileged has affected his making process this time around, he said something unexpected. He said that he’s not giving himself any deadlines. He’s not working towards a particular booking, or venue run. He’s going to continue working on the show, and sharing it at different stages of development, but he won’t commit to some kind of artificial premiere, no big press night. In an industry whose funding systems are so overwhelmingly based on outcomes, it’s a refreshing attitude.
So, this afternoon, I saw a version of Word that sits at a particular, singular point on the show’s timeline. Later, I might be lucky enough to see another version, at another point on the timeline. And in the meantime, Jamal can develop this show – this difficult, uncompromising show – at a pace that gives him, and his process, the space required.
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