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On the One Hand – Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Writer: The Paper Birds

Director: Jemma McDonnell

Music and Sound Design: Shane Durrant

Reviewer: S. E. Webster


on the one handOn the One Hand marks the 10th year anniversary of the formation of Leeds-based theatre company, The Paper Birds. Exploring the issue of ageing in the female sex, the five characters fall into a range of ages, from the first year university student to the elderly suffering with dementia.

While each of the actresses handles their characters admirably, it seems that the play itself has some issues from the start. For example, it is strange and unexplained in the performance why Sarah Berger, as the fifty-year old, was only ever heard as a voice-over through the theatre speakers and never actually seen on stage. Likewise, the metatheatrical tone of the play works well to begin with, such as when Tracey-Anne Liles as the forty-year old complains that she shouldn’t be playing the mother or the tutor, this particular joke wears quite thin after the seventh or eighth time of hearing it. The fact too that the actresses are all playing more than one type of female character within their chosen age range, makes it difficult for the audience to feel any true empathy for the individuals on stage.

The set design is unusual and there are moments when it generates a great deal of comedy, especially the use of the fridge as a ticket booth and as a computer screen for transmitting Skype, and the bath works well as the desk of a call centre. However, at times the set proved awkward, especially the scenes that involved getting in and out of the bath, and indeed it was uncertain why the bath, bed or chair were suspended on ropes in the air, and what the purpose of this really was other than that it looked unusual.

The recorded string and piano instrumental accompaniment however, designed by Shane Durrant, was particularly moving and appropriate to the mood and feel of the performance on stage.

The play is cathartic, and certainly if audience members have family or friends suffering from dementia, or have first-hand experienced of grief in those particular circumstances, then they will no doubt connect with the play’s core message. Yet, unless you’ve literally walked in the shoes of the characters on stage, the play falls short of creating real empathy for the women on stage.

Runs until 23rd November at West Yorkshire Playhouse

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