For their tenth anniversary show, The Paper Birds have chosen to explore the weighty themes of life and death. Told through the personal stories of women at different stages of their lives, On the One Hand is a cleverly crafted show that unfortunately fails to deliver a wholly satisfying emotional journey.
Rather than let the stories play out in a linear fashion, we have 75 minutes of chaotic, overlapping tales, with each of the women taking on multiple roles (as we are supposedly expected to do in real life). As a result, there’s scant time to really absorb what’s going on before things zip to the next little vignette. Nothing really gets resolved and it’s only towards the end that things slow down sufficiently to allow any true emotion to come through.
There’s obviously been much thought put into how this piece is assembled, with neat (if sometimes distracting) touches peppered throughout, such as the time left in the show being written up in minutes and lots of rhythmic handclapping.
However, the boldness of the production means that not everyone will appreciate this fast-paced, scattered delivery. In fact, in many places, the play is more tedious than touching, as props are constantly moved back and forth, and the characters repeatedly bicker over which of them is going to play members of the supporting cast.
In terms of the main cast, we have a moody teenager (Hannah Lambsdown) struggling at university, an indecisive thirty-year-old (Kylie Walsh) running off on a ‘gap year’ around the world trip to escape the boring life she’s made for herself, a timid forty-year-old (Tracey-Anne Liles) trying to get a daft business off the ground, an unseen fifty year old (Sarah Berger) chipping in via voice over, a sixty-year-old woman and her elderly mother (both Illona Linthwaite) facing up to dementia and the restrictions imposed by old age.
The pick of the acting comes from Linthwaite, who slips effortlessly between her two roles, and Liles, who spends much her time getting run ragged as the forty-year-old being reluctantly pushed and pulled into multiple roles. Once again, the Playhouse space has been used to good effect with Fiammetta Horvat’s ingeniously suspended domestic-themed set.
One of the main themes of On the One Hand is the supposed pressure some women feel to be a certain way at a certain age; to get the right grades, get married to the perfect man, have the right number of kids, be the right clothes size etc. Any woman who feels this way might well experience empathy with the younger characters’ so-called predicaments, but juxtaposing angst ridden "what am I doing with my life?" issues and meaningless "social pressures" with the actual mental and physical decay associated with getting older seems to miss the mark.
The play starts with a sobering rundown of how we spend our average 79.5 years on this planet. Given this unrelenting timer we’ve all got constantly running down in the background, the final obvious message of the play (which is delivered by the oldest and most contented character) that we all need to make our mistakes and find a way to live life in our own way is one that is a long time coming.
On the One Hand continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 23 November.
– Hannah Giles