DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Ask Me Anything – Live Theatre, Newcastle

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Music & Lyrics: Rosie Doonan

Writers: The Paper Birds

Director: Jemma McDonnell

Ask Me Anything is co-produced by Live Theatre and The Paper Birds, who describe themselves as “a devising theatre company with a social and political agenda.” In Ask Me Anything, which they call a conversation with the audience, they take on the role of the agony aunts from teenage magazines. Basing the show on actual questions solicited from teenagers across the UK, they try to answer the burning questions that youngsters are afraid to ask their parents.

The main device used is to channel their younger selves on stage sets that may or may not be representative of their own teenage bedrooms. There is plenty of humour. Georgie Coles, matter-of-fact and focused, is reading through her teenage diaries, searching unsuccessfully for relevant entries. Kylie Perry gives a high-energy interpretation of her teenage experiences through the medium of an American teen sitcom. The beating heart of the piece, however, is Rosie Doonan, talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, whose songs bring real emotion and excitement to the piece. The aching loveliness of her Love Song to Paddy at the poignant climax of the evening will no doubt stay with the audience for a long time.

The actors use TV screens, their own virtual assistant and a mysterious moving box to set up the questions and a wealth of cultural references to connect with the, mostly young, audience.  Seating people on bean bags and cushions contributes to the relaxed atmosphere and shows their commitment to making the show accessible to young people. Based on this audience, it clearly works.

The Paper Birds recognise the size and the importance of the task they have taken on. Knowing they don’t have all the answers, they present video footage from friends and relatives who have relevant experience and can give a reasoned response to the young people’s problems. These moments are amongst the most powerful of the evening. Working through social awkwardness, parenthood, sexuality and isolation, the actors come at last, literally, to a matter of life and death. They deliver a heartfelt and considered exploration of teenage suicide and ways to look for help and hope.

After targeting the young, the show turns neatly around and ends by offering teenagers’ advice to their elders on how to help and support them through the strenuous difficulties of growing up, in the loud and joyous song, Hey Hey Hey. In this and other songs, Coles and Perry join in on drums and guitar, as well as contributing vocals.

Ask Me Anything is not a play by any normal standards. It is an intelligent and engaging means of addressing young people’s problems using a range of media. Importantly, it succeeds in bridging the gap between generations and makes a young audience feel safe and welcomed into the theatre. The show perhaps would have benefited from less preamble before the actual questions were tackled, but the cultural references used clearly struck a chord with other audience members.

The Paper Birds are making a valuable contribution to the debate on where theatre should be going. In dealing with serious issues in an accessible way, Ask Me Anything has the potential to make a real difference to young people’s lives and deserves to be widely seen.

Runs until 6th February

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Imaginative engaging theatre

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