Theatre company The Paper Birds wrote to young people. They wrote far and wide across the UK, across schools and youth theatres covering various locations and backgrounds. And they asked those young people to write back… with questions. Questions about anything and everything. Any topic, any issue. There was no off-limits as there were no limits. Answering those questions was to become the basis of Ask Me Anything, a new show billed as a “loud, live, love song to not having it all figured out.” With over a hundred responses the creative team certainly had their work cut out for them in replying and we were fortunate enough to listen in.
Directed by Jemma McDonnell, Ask Me Anything takes the questions received and spins the answers into a beautiful, complex web of a show. The three performers – Georgie Coles, Rosie Doonan and Kylie Perry – meet questions on topics covering race, sexuality, identity, love and mental health with honesty and tact through their own chosen methods. Doonan, a singer-songwriter who has performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Birdy, performs show-stopping songs about growing up and parenthood. Perry pieces together scenes from her adolescence in comedy sitcom format, inviting us to participate as her live studio audience. And Coles reads extracts from her, at times, hilariously mundane childhood diary. Each method provides insight with its entertainment; there are parables to be found amongst the silliness.
But there is also silliness. Ask Me Anything is fun. It is over the top and packed full of nostalgia. References lost in time resurface to collective gasps and groans; teletext, Tamagotchi, dial-up, Blockbuster. The pace is fast as the performers interweave heartfelt stories and humorous anecdotes with live music, audience participation and video stream. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal and it pays to get there early as you might be able to nab a bean bag for a seat.
By the halfway mark it may seem that this show could be pegged as an homage to the nostalgia it so revels in, or more specifically, as a tribute to the agony aunt columns that littered the magazine pages of the 90s and 00s. But that notion suddenly falls away when, pushing through the iridescent façade of wistful reminiscence, comes a powerful message about growing up. Because growing up is hard and these days it feels like something has gone very wrong. Young people today are told that their opinion matters, but no one is listening. Image is everything, but identity taboo. Google is turned to for the answers as there is no one else. Ask Me Anything goes some way in fighting back. It may not have all the answers but it is all ears to the questions. Image is fleeting and identity to be celebrated. The trio restore humanity to the search engine and the ghost in the machine is a friendly one.
The Paper Birds produce engaging theatre in multiple senses of the word. Ask Me Anything is engaging in that it is entertaining, interesting, of substance. But it also fully engages its audience, wider communities and the people this show is really about. Amidst the cacophony of thoughts, opinions and pretence growing up can be an isolating experience. Ask Me Anything asks what it would be to allow talking to take a backseat in favour of listening and real support for those who need it. “This show is a conversation” we are told and whilst they readily admit that no one has all the answers The Paper Birds certainly seem to have a few of them.
The Old Market, Sunday 8th March 2020