Pulse is an important event, one of a dwindling handful of regional festivals focussed firmly on early-career theatremakers and dedicated to nurturing them year-round, not just during its 10-day June showcase. Scan through this edition’s programme, the festival’s 18th, and there’s a mixture of red-hot names, emerging artists, and fresh work from brand new companies.
Luke Wright’s sublime second verse play Frankie Vah, the Wardrobe Ensemble’s nostalgia-driven homage to 1997, Education, Education, Education and Fellswoop Theatre’s sinister contemporary circus show Palmyra are joined by a whole rack of work from companies yet to make a splash.
The festival’s first Sunday – a ‘pay what you can’ day – closed with two invigorating and socially engaged pieces: Action at a Distance, the debut show from the Norwich-based, UEA-educated Argonaut Theatre, and Nice Guys, the sixth show from the New Wolsey’s own training company People You May Know.
Action at a Distance (★★★★) is nothing if not ambitious. Rory Horne’s Nevada-set play takes two cornerstones of Obama’s presidency – drone strikes and the Affordable Care Act – and smashes them together.
Christine (an increasingly wired Rosa Caines) meets Josh (an increasingly worried Dom Luck) on Tinder, and through his charity work exposing the brutal reality of drone warfare in Syria and Iraq, learns about the shady existence of a sinister betting website, where you can make bitcoin predicting where the next missile will hit. Betfair for bombs.
Christine’s good, and she needs to be – her abusive mother has just been diagnosed with cancer. Too well-off to qualify for free healthcare under Obama’s new legislation, too poor to afford their own, Christine and her mother need all the blood money they can get.
If that premise sounds far-fetched, it’s not. The best thing about Horne’s writing is its gripping authority. He compellingly weighs the inhumanity of the American healthcare system against the horrific destruction in Aleppo, Mosul and Raqqa. It’s ethically knotty, extremely promising work from a new company. A dash more directorial flare and this would be a belter.
Nice Guys (★★★) takes on an even bigger challenge but struggles. Writers Jack Lang and Rob Salmon attempt a whistle-stop, fun-filled tour of modern-day masculinity, visiting feminist-allies, male supremacists and online incels. Sexist shits, they make clear, are everywhere, from nightclubs to internet forums. Mollie Steward is our host; George Howarth, Sam Pote and Charlie Shephard are a rack of contemptible caricatures.
There’s a lot of humour in Salmon’s production, particularly during a sausage roll-fuelled game of Check Your Privilege, but the show never digs deep enough the social pressures that drive men towards misogyny, or asks what we can do about them. It tells us something we already know. Commendable content, gleefully staged, but in need of refinement.