Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

On The One Hand

The Paper Birds
The Paper Birds
Liverpool Playhouse Studio

The Paper Birds in On The One Hand Credit: Richard Davenport

There is one aspect of The Little Birds fine show, On The One Hand, which disappoints, frustrates, even irritates me—where are the men?

I’m not talking about on stage—this is an all-woman cast, and rightly so, given its subject. But looking around the audience, I’d estimate less than one in ten is male. Have we (males, that is) still not evolved sufficiently to understand that a show by women and about women is not automatically a show (exclusively) for women?

If only Alexander Pope had written that ‘the proper study of mankind is woman’ what service he might have done us all. Ah well, tough luck, guys. You’re missing something special here in the Playhouse Studio.

The premise is simple: five women, each representing a decade in women’s lives, present to us the challenges of being a ‘woman of a certain age’. Although the content of each story is particular to that individual, the universality of the issues confronting each is signalled by calling them after the age each has reached (thus, Teen, Thirty, Forty etc.).

Teen (Hannah Lambsdown) is the child of a single northern mother, the first of her family to go to university. This challenge is enhanced by the fact that her first steps as a fresher are taken at Clare College, Cambridge. Does she really belong here? Could she bear to disappoint her mum?

Thirty (Kylie Walsh), prompted by the premature death of a close friend, sets off back-packing in the hope of ‘finding herself’, a quest made all the more difficult when her boyfriend proposes via Skype. In one bright and witty scene, her indecision over whether to take a boat tour round Sydney Harbour mirrors her confusion in life—she fears she may not be ready to cope if there are children on board.

Fifty (the voice of Sarah Berger) is an actor whose career echoes her stage of life. Like many women entering their sixth decade she finds herself changing ‘from being seen but not heard, to being heard but not seen’. Professionally, this also affects Fifty, as her roles not only move from Juliet to her nurse (a motif in the script), but from stage to radio.

Sixty (Illona Linthwaite) has the twinned burden of coping with own physical decline, whilst caring for her elderly mother. Linthwaite also takes on the role of Elderly—her transitions into this character skillfully avoid any hint of superficiality, her physical transformation being particularly impressive, happening, as it does, before our eyes.

However, it is Tracey-Anne Liles’s Forty who most glaringly encounters the central theme of the piece—the quest for identity. Throughout the 75 minutes of the performance, she is repeatedly pulled and pushed into roles for which she does not feel suited. “I’m not your mother,” she protests more than once, yet despite these protestations she more often than not cannot bring herself to offer more than token resistance to what is demanded of her. “I cannot play all these roles, I cannot be all these things at once,” she finally rails. But she does; she is.

The cast (most ably directed by Jemma McDonnell) exploit Fiametta Horvat’s marvellously confining set with eye-catching physicality. Packed into a portion of centre-stage floor space is a cramped representation of a home. The ground floor offers chair, table, washing-machine, fridge-freezer and lavatory, whilst above (but barely above) chair, bed and bath are suspended, hammock-like. All is put to full and imaginative use throughout this engaging 75-minute show.

The cast are constantly working, and the teamwork is impressive as they help, hinder, challenge, compete or support as the moment requires. The idea that Elderly carries within her all the younger women she has been, for example, is beautifully conveyed; the cast take on her trembling hands or embody her fight to recall details of her life story.

As is plausible, only Elderly manages to resolve her identity crisis, though with an appropriately ironic caveat. “I know who I am now—trouble is, I sometimes forget.”

The closing image, with Sixty dancing freestyle while the younger women crawl towards her, slowed and weighed down by what burdens them, is challenging and memorable.

Let me repeat: this is a show by women and about women. It’s a show for all.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson