Being a young person is hard. But, as it turns out, growing older doesn’t give you all the answers. Ask Me Anything from Live Theatre and The Paper Birds is a messy, fun and emotionally resonant beginning of an open conversation with young people.
A trio of well-meaning actors (Georgie Coles, Rosie Doonan and Kylie Perry), set out on a mission to try and help the troubled youth of today, emulating the agony aunts they loved when they were teenagers. Going round schools and youth theatres to reach real teenagers with the offer to ‘ask them anything’, the verbatim show is built around the many questions they got in response. And in doing so, it becomes less of an agony aunt show and more of a chaotic hymn to their own teen years and to still trying to work things out.
“Tender, genuine and multi-faceted”
The set perfectly encapsulates this sense of imperfection. Walking into the performance space, you are greeted with a packed stage, with an almost painfully strong 80s and 90s aesthetic, depicting the childhood bedrooms of the three performers – or so you’re led to think. This muddle of clashing colours, styles and equipment reflects the messiness of the play, and physicalizes the desire to re-colour your past.
Darren Perry’s design is also strongly innovative. Technology litters the stage, from an old fashioned TV to a blown-up smartphone to a PC screen. They are ever-present and flickering, flipping between video messages of the performers’ friends chipping in with their own advice, text screens and a vaguely helpful, but far from human, Alexa-esque programme called BRIDGE IT (get it?). This is a clever representation of the constantly connected world that young people live in, where instead of turning to the pages of Just 17 to find all the answers we can turn to Google (other search browsers are available) and get millions upon millions of answers. Agony Aunts have been replaced by social media, webpages and Reddit – one of my smaller bugbears with this performance was that, despite being called ‘AMA’, it never references the chat rooms in which this term has become increasingly popular. Nevertheless, the world has become bigger, and this technological divide is one of the biggest gaps between the older and younger generations, generations that really lack a great deal of human-to-human genuine connection.
But on to the actual questions: held in a box, front and centre of the stage, accompanied by indistinguishable whispering voices when opened, they show that while some things have changed between generations, a lot hasn’t. The questions talk about fitting in, about what a mortgage even is (good question), and about sex, a lot about sex. And in response, the three performers turn to a mish-mash of forms and their own individual experiences: Georgie reading hilariously from her real life diary, Rosie answering musically with incredible talent and a unique, folk-soul voice, and Kylie performing in her own sit-com based on her life complete with title cards and a film camera capturing her acting on the stage’s various screens. The latter was the only section that didn’t quite fit for me. While funny, the faux-American accent and melodramatic acting may have been self-deprecating but came across slightly too much like the plethora of media out there that infantilises and derides teenage girl’s experience. It may have been trying draw attention to that kind of mocking, but it needed to be clearer about it.
The screens also came in handy at this point, as the trio outsource questions they don’t feel qualified to answer to friends of theirs with lived experience of the issues raised – being gay and being a parent, being mixed race – in a thoughtful move acknowledging that real life experience is necessary to give real advice.
“Risks losing nuance in generational translation”
But it turns out the cast don’t really feel qualified to answer any of the questions. This cacophony of voices and creative conceits reaches its climax and ends up bringing the whole concept of the play crashing down. These entertaining forms are shown to be what they really are – distractions and procrastinations hiding the fact that they are just as lost and confused as when they were teenagers.
From here, the play increases the intensity a hundred fold, all accompanied by beautiful live and original music from the cast, which weaves the thread of the performance as they tackle the difficult questions they’ve been avoiding from the start. This comes heavy, like a slap round the face made even more impactful.
However, this is where my issue with the performance starts. The first half went on for a long time, leaving me feel slightly confused and not entirely engaged as I kept waiting for the point of the performance. When suddenly the second half comes out of nowhere to bring an emotional punch and revealed the faulty concept of the play itself. The idea of heel-turning on your own play’s concept is a brilliant one – however, if the performance was about the journey of the trio realising that they don’t have all the answers, this narrative arc needed to be more realised and fully committed to. More hints need to be dropped before the sudden twist. Without that build up, the switch felt slightly clunky.
I also found that the play’s relationship with the young people it aimed to help seemed slightly confused. A performance which is a conversation is a brilliant and good-hearted idea, and is made incredibly powerful by the actors ultimately rejecting the very premise of the production. But by the end it was clear that the performance was less about the young people than the adults who are scared of facing their own issues and lack of clarity about life. But this risks drowning out the voices of the young people who they built the performance around, especially when the entire show consists of adults mediating the audience and young people’s concerns. It risks losing nuance in generational translation. While the company workshopped the play with young people and clearly deeply care about their voices, they need to be careful when walking the line between conversing with young people and co-opting their voices and issues as a frame to deal with their own pasts.
And a sidenote: I’m definitely on the way out towards the wrong side of being a ‘young person’ (I still have my 16-25 railcard but my undergraduate degree is starting to feel like a distant memory), but I was definitely one of the youngest people in the audience. This creates a different dynamic between the audience and performance, and I would be curious to see this again in front of an audience of genuine young people.
This production definitely feels like the beginning of a conversation. It acknowledges that there is no one easy solution, but instead encourages the audience to reach across the generational divide and talk to each other. It is a tender, genuine and multi-faceted creation, but, ironically for a play about confusion, it needs to be slightly more set on its own narrative journey.
Ask Me Anything ran at Crescent at the Vaults until 16th February 2020.
Image: The Paper Birds