The Girl and Her Balloon

Recalling Banksy’s famous graffiti, originally painted on the side of Waterloo Bridge in 2002, Amy Wakeman’s The Girl and Her Balloon is a similarly ubiquitous depiction of hope in the face of adversity. Wakeman’s one woman play synthesises multiple stories of homelessness into one body: the Girl. As we were told at the end, Wakeman’s work with homeless people over the past ten years inspired this script, which follows the life of a middle aged artist, sleeping rough in London. As she paints cartoons on balloons for a living, the Girl muses on love, drugs and mental health, describing the ins and outs of life on the street.

Muses on love, drugs and mental health

As we watch the Girl, we are called to laugh at her destitution as she dances around her tent, pitched on the small studio stage. Inevitably, this kind of laughter is uncomfortable. On one level, we experience a Brechtian alienation; on another, a latent discomfort with the exploitation of homelessness for theatrical entertainment. This is not to say that stories of homelessness should be censored, but their representation does require a degree of complexity which felt slightly lacking in Wakeman’s performance. This exposing production was bold and brave, and Wakeman showed inspiring dynamism in her ability to code switch between the homeless woman and her right-wing, squeaky clean onlookers. Yet the compilation of many stories – each coming from a unique subject – into a single character is inevitably essentialising, leaving gaping holes in the plot. Wakeman’s girl served as a “universal” female homeless subject, but the very idea of such a character left a bad taste in my mouth. The audience never got deeper than surface level in understanding the Girl’s personal history. Instead, we received a series of fairly generic statements about homelessness – not lost on the privileged Fringe audience, who had each paid £7.50 for a ticket, but certainly not far from the standard narratives of homelessness we might access through news or documentary.

One way in which I would have shifted the emphasis of Wakeman’s production would be to explore her shadow puppetry, which had been recorded and projected onto a screen. Although these projections held powerful possibilities for symbolism, they felt strangely impalpable and short-lived, merely distinguishing between scenes. Towards the end of the play the projections became films of Wakeman dressed as the Girl, pouring wine down herself under dark red lighting, reflecting her degradation into alcoholism. I couldn’t help wishing that these gestures had been live, pushing against the audience’s expectations, rather than Wakeman’s more literal performance of drunkenness. The shadow puppetry also could have shown facets of homelessness which weren’t verbally described. The point of puppetry or projection is to add something new to the physical bodies on stage, rather than simply reinforcing their presence.

Unlike Banksy’s figure, whose symbolic street life evokes hundreds of meanings, Wakeman’s Girl and Her Balloon was so overtly narrativised that her symbolic life became shallow, despite the play’s potential.

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Reviews by Elinor Arden

Summerhall

Dreams of the Small Gods

★★★
C ARTS | C venues | C place

Searching and Knowing

★★★
theSpace on North Bridge

The Girl and Her Balloon

★★★

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The Blurb

A feisty, female artist sells painted balloons whilst living on London’s streets. Using imagery-based storytelling and shadow puppetry, this play explores themes of ambition, addiction, and escapism. Expressed through humour and raw emotion, the girl and her balloon will take you on a journey through the highs and lows of living outside the system and the battle to cling onto hope when you feel invisible.

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