Now in it’s 5th year, The PULSE Festival’s Suitcase Prize challenges theatremakers to think about how they can tour their production via public transport. The Reviews Hub‘s Paul Couch reflects on this year’s competition and his view from the judging panel.
Suitcase Day at the New Wolsey Theatre’s PULSE Festival can sometimes be a little hit and miss. The premise is that participating acts should be able to bring to the venue whatever set and props they need by way of public transport, hence reducing the carbon footprint of the festival.
However, this year, the judges, Arts Admin director Judith Knight, new Wolsey Theatre Young Associate Mollie Steward, and myself, felt that there was a consistently high standard shown by the 10 shortlisted entrants, making the judging process more difficult than ever. These scratch performances were all up to just 20 minutes long and so many were necessarily excerpts from longer work. What was apparent from the day is the current popularity for performance lectures, or TED Talks, in which the lone artist addresses the audience directly.
The first session of the day featured work from NotNowCollective (Dadman: The Bath-time Warrior), James McDermott’s Rubber Ring, and ThisEgg’s Me & My Bee.
Dadman: The Bath-time Warrior is an exploration of how working fathers strive to stay connected to their children and the piece scored highly with the judges. Particularly poignant was a segment in which one of the two real-life fathers on stage recounted how his spouse ‘took ownership’ of the children, often overriding his clothing or food choices.
Particularly poignant was a segment in which one of the two real-life fathers on stage recounted how his spouse ‘took ownership’ of the children, often overriding his clothing or food choices. Dadman: The Bath-time Warrior received Highly Commended status from the judges.
James McDermott’s Rubber Ring is a quirky and touching story of a sexually confused adolescent’s craving to escape his Norfolk small-town life and make his way in the world. “The nearest thing to a ‘gay scene’ is a paedophile ring,” he wails, and it was exactly this kind of sharp, witty dialogue, combined with McDermott’s confident delivery that found him ultimately picking up the £1000 Suitcase Prize.
ThisEgg’s Me & My Bee, which was aimed at a much younger audience, was an engaging and funny spoof that looks at the decimation of the world’s bee population through the topical medium of political campaigning. While the piece had many merits, the judges felt that there was still some way to go in regards to it becoming a polished piece of family theatre.
The second session began with Scottish company Wonder Fools, who brought The Coolidge Effect, a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of research carried out on the mating impetus of rats. The piece also examined the effects of pornography on the human psyche. The judges found the performance of Robbie Gordon gripping but felt that it as a ‘game of two halves’ that didn’t quite gel. Nevertheless, The Coolidge Effect was awarded the second commendation of the Suitcase Prize day.
Amy Mackelden’s MS Is My Boyfriend is a touching recollection of the artist’s diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and the effect she believes it will have on her life and career aspirations. The judges – and clearly the audience – found her story interesting and inspiring, but the judges felt that it lacked a theatrical form with which to sustain interest.
The American performance artist George Orange kicked off the third session of the day with First Lady, his memories of his relationship with drag artist Joan Jett Blakk (aka Terence Smith) who ran for the office of President of the United States against George Bush Sr. in 1992. Orange’s performance was assured and a fascinating insight into social upheaval in the United States during the period.
Next came Lucy Grace’s Dog Teeth, a dark story of living in Donald Trumps, post-truth/alternative facts world. While the judges enjoyed Grace’s compelling performance, Dog Teeth lacked enough cohesion of either a linear tale or analogy to be complete.
Closing session three was Dead Rabbits Theatre’s My Love Lies Frozen In The Snow, a valiant attempt to recreate on stage S. A. Andrée’s ill-fated Arctic balloon expedition of 1897. This was the only entry for the Suitcase Prize that featured an actual “set”, which very effectively comprised a suspended white parachute silk draped behind and across the stage. While the judges found moments of the piece entertaining and cleverly executed, it was felt that its comedic take was a little incongruous with the historical subject of an expedition in which all three members lost their lives.
The last session of the day was opened by Lucy and Sophie Bishop. Lucy works in theatre, and Sophie claims to hate it, hence the title of their entry, Sophie Hates Theatre. To convince her sister, Lucy forces her to create a show she will like. Both are skilled comic performers with a penchant for clowning but the judges felt that the piece needed more substance than the sisters were able to illustrate in the time they had.
Finally, Robin Boon Dale also displayed a fine talent for clowning and also juggling with What Does Stuff Do, a performance lecture that explained the mechanics of juggling, using a flipchart, various props and even water (not always successfully) in an engaging and impressive performance.
In 2016, David Ralfe of On The Run Theatre won the Suitcase Prize with Tell Me Anything, a gripping and poignant exploration of a former girlfriend’s eating disorder and how it affected those closest to her. However, now expanded into a larger work, Ralfe is able to take a broader view of the motivations and societal pressures that feed such conditions.