On the One Hand

Paper Birds’ On the One Hand looks and feels a lot like a John Lewis advert. Four women, all at different stages of their lives are on stage, on a set comprised of dangling furniture, a neat red and white chequered floor and vibrant green grass. A jaunty and positive soundtrack plays throughout, as we see different snapshots of the women’s lives. The production is challenging and questioning, but in a safe, optimistic and warm way.

Yet On the One Hand is better than the two minutes of heart-warming, humanity-affirming schmaltz that John Lewis churns out each year. At its centre is a probing examination of contemporary female role-playing. Paper Birds present us with a first-year English student, a woman setting off with a backpack to ‘find herself’, another who is selling her new product - a peg designed to keep socks together - and an elderly and infirm grandmother suffering from dementia. At the face of it, none of these characters seem very adventurous for a production to deal with - but that’s On the One Hand’s strength. By being deliberately conservative in their horizons, Paper Birds are able to portray and examine an existence which is thoroughly normal. They’ll almost certainly come into criticism from some quarters for this but amongst a plethora of gritty, more aggressively modern fringe shows, it’s surprisingly refreshing.

The production is very clearly conceptualised: we’re watching four people pretending to be four other people and the performers acknowledge that. Acting becomes a metaphor for the same role-playing that women undertake each day - ‘I was Juliet, and now I’m the nurse’, notes one of them. Age changes what is expected of each of them - be it a university education, a stable job, or motherhood. About to be filmed for a television commercial, one character is told to pretend to have children, as it will appeal to consumers.

Familiarity is crucial to this production - we’re supposed to be able to identify closely with the scenes and characters on stage. It might be a little cosy and bourgeois and it might seem that the problems these characters agonise over aren’t really all that pressing in the grand scheme of things - but, chances are, that’s a pretty accurate reflection of the lives of the audience too. Throughout the play, the time remaining is written up on the fridge - it’s a device which stresses how our lives are intersecting with those shown on stage and also how our experience in the theatre - or even our choice to go to the theatre - is a portion of who we are and how we live out our lives.

The transitions between scenes are excellently shaped, as is the way in which the actors interact with the quirky set, clambering up onto the suspended bath, or sticking their heads through the door of the fridge-freezer. The style of performance feels spontaneous but never improvised and you sense the relationship between not just characters but actors too.

There’s a great deal to think about in this excellent production and its approachable familiarity helps us access its more challenging observations all the more keenly.

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now

Performances

The Blurb

Growing ambitions, shrinking pensions, biological clocks on snooze and dementia.  Six women at different stages in their lives share stories of ageing and our inevitable journey from birth to death. 'Sharp, vibrant, poignant' (Independent).

Most Popular See More

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Frozen the Musical

From £36.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Pretty Woman: The Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Mary Poppins

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Play That Goes Wrong

From £15.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Wicked

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets