Theatre review: On the One Hand
Edinburgh Festival Fringe Scotsman review: On the One Hand at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s (Venue 73), reviewed by Sue Wilson
The tenth anniversary production from award-winning Leeds-based company The Paper Birds, this inventive theatrical collage opens with a voiceover detailing the earliest stages of human embryonic development – up to the point where our hands and fingerprints appear.
As indicated by the title, hands form a visual and verbal motif throughout the ensuing intricately overlapping exploration of women’s lives and evolving identities at various ages.
This is both as an emblem of our enduring uniqueness, regardless of physical changes, and as the site where our years’ experiences are most indelibly inscribed – often more reliably, in these youth-obsessed days, than on potentially altered faces.
Developed through extensive research with communities across the north of England, the intertwined narrative threads chiefly concern: a working-class student starting out at Cambridge University; a backpacker in her 20s trying to leave her troubles behind; a woman who stumbles upon commercial success in middle age; and a 60-ish daughter who is caring for her mother and attempting to fend off her advancing dementia by compiling a “memory book”. All these scenes are played out on, in and around the piece’s visually striking set design.
A large, rectangular frame hangs towards the back of the stage, within which are suspended various household items including chairs, a sofa, a fridge and a bath.
While this provides for some wittily ingenious exits and entrances, as well as presumably signifying the extent to which women’s lives tend to be grounded in the domestic, the physical palaver involved as the four-strong cast – also collectively playing sundry subsidiary roles – clamber about this structure mostly seems a needless distraction for both them and the audience.
In other respects, though, there’s a wealth of theatrical imagination on display.
The many vivid, touching vignettes are enriched with deft collective use of physical gestures, artfully deployed simple props and resonant dialogue sequences.
While this accomplished technical intricacy is not necessarily always matched by the necessary underlying narrative cohesion and momentum, as those multiple threads become confusingly tangled, the
play’s core combination of warmth, insight and dry humour ultimately wins through.
Until 24 August.
More info: On the One Hand is at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s
Originally published in The Scotsman