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The Paper Birds' On The One Hand


While their last production Thirsty provoked a punch-in-the-gut kind of recognition, On The One Hand is more of a gentle squeeze on the arm - a warmer, quieter reflection on a broader scale.

The production explores female characters at different stages of their life: a first year English student still finding her feet, a woman going travelling to find herself, a newly formed business woman, and then an older woman caring for her frail mother with dementia.

At the beginning the amount of time left of the piece is written on a white board - this then happens at random intervals throughout the production. While thematically there is the link to the passing of time, what was more interesting to me was how it made me reflect on the theatrical experience.

Especially with the mixed bag of the Fringe - there are times when you're looking at your watch willing an hour to go by, and there's times like this - with the lessening amount of time being frustrating, making me realise just how much I was enjoying the piece.

Once again Fiammetta Horvat has produced a stunning and innovative yet simple set design for the company - with a rectangle block filled with a fridge, bath, table and bed - utilised by performers  within and between scenes. This naturalistic domestic set-up is turned on its head as the space is used with multiple functions beyond what you would expect.

The fridge door opens to reveal a framed space around a performer as we see her on Skype. There's the playful and true to life addition of freezing and broken up speech, capturing the awkward failings of technology when trying to have an engaging conversation from afar.

As one character enters into the world of business with her sock creation "clip-toe", a comical yet sadly accurate form of everyday sexism is explored. Promoters try to label her as the woman who has everything, not enough time to pair socks because she's too busy having a wonderful career and of course being a dutiful mother and wife. Society, but especially advertising's inability to see a woman as completely outside the familial role is apparent here. Especially with pleas of "but men would use it too" being ignored.

As she is played the voiceover to the advert for her product, she responds "I'm not that woman" only to be met with "then play the part" as if there is no other option but to pretend.

Especially poignant was the depiction of the older woman as carer, but also the mother she is caring for. As the mother talks but struggles to find the right words her fellow performers repeat percussive actions quickening in pace as her frustration to remember and communicate shows. It's an effective technique which allows an insight into the mind of the often too easily dismissed sufferer.

What The Paper Birds do brilliantly is make contemporary performances which are incredibly inventive yet feel safe and accessible. The acting is largely naturalistic while the movement between both the set and scenes is refreshingly creative.

As the company celebrate ten years of making work - this seems like the perfect production for that anniversary: contentedly reflective. Beginning with what seems like questions from a survey used in research - they then hone into a few micro-narratives, allowing them to fully explore these characters and the issues they present.

What often comes through is the difficulty of the woman to have to play so many conflicting roles amidst internal and external pressure: the mother must remain in full-time mother mode even when her child flees the nest; the university tutor can't be flawed and must have all the answers; the young woman must balance finding herself with finding and accepting love; and a business woman strives for autonomy as inappropriate labels are given to her.

This central theme is then reflected in the four performers playing multiple roles as they embrace the metatheatrical. A character is mentioned and they look around to see who will take it up - one performer comically complaining: "I can't be her mother as well!"

This is not a hard-hitting piece, and amidst some of what the Fringe presents I was glad of it. Instead it exudes warmth and creativity. It is quite clear that the company are a decade into making work - they don't feel the need for bold statements for the sake of it - instead we get a lovely, exciting production - making us laugh and making us think.

The Paper Birds' On The One Hand plays at Northern Stage at St Stephen's at 6.35pm until 24 August.


  1. Brilliant review! It was one of my fave shows too.

    Sarah Xx

  2. Thanks Sarah. Just checking out your blog - think will be following from now on. Seems we have quite similar tastes! x


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