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.