Birdwatching is cool. Ecology is cool. David Attenborough is “kind of sexy”. Saving trees and bird species is sad and difficult and hard work, but within its very audacity is a crucible of colour and neon. Really, it’s all one big rave. And it all happens, apparently, in Margate.
At least, this is what I now know to be true after seeing Parakeet, a big bundle of gig theatre joy performed live by writer Brigitte Aphrodite, composer Quiet Boy and the musical’s eponymous punk protest band, The Parakeets (Michelle Tiwo, Lula Mebrathu and Isabel Oliver.)
Musically, Parakeet is a stomping success: Elastica-esque guitar propels raucous percussion and a storm of shouting and singing that recalls latter-day Kate Nash, Tilly and the Wall or, at a push, Be Your Own Pet. (Although my staunchly millennial musical framework can’t quite capture the sheer Gen Z-ness of the Parakeets’ three vocalists, nor the music’s clamouring reaching-forward-ness.) Genres (punk, pop, riot grrrl, spoken word) are treated more as flags to be waved than rules to be followed.
The same is true of Parakeet’s costume design (production design as a whole is by Alex Noble), which commandeers the neon face-paint and fluorescents of rave culture with the morris-dance pageantry of rags and tatters. Like the music, it’s stitched together from old things, but pushes forward, opening into something wonderful and new.
These choices are at once aesthetic and ideological, and Parakeet seems to exist in a space that allows little difference between the two. It isn’t merely decorative. This music is the manifestation of the joy that the play’s heroes find in each other’s friendship, this costume the embodiment of their love and hope. Within the music especially, plot and feeling culminate, characters grow and the group unifies, emboldens.
And we’re in it too: the audience is invited to the party. For an hour or so, we get to be in their gang.
Inherent in all of this is a story of rejecting marginalisation: the play’s three characters, Girl (Tiwo), Tam (Mebrahtu) and Dust (Oliver) see themselves – or are seen by others – as misfits, whether due to their status as migrants, refugees, children in care or as the followers of obscure passions and causes. Their newly-formed group offers them not homogeneity but strength and amplification for their uniqueness and their quirks. In The Parakeets, solidarity and self-expression carry no contradiction.
The target of the band’s protest is the protection of a group of trees, threatened for felling by Thanet Council, which provide a habitat for Margate’s parakeet population. Parakeets, which are not native UK birds, are a pretty overt metaphor for attitudes towards migrants. And the metaphor is not supposed to be subtle – I mean, the band literally call themselves The Parakeets – but it works for two reasons. First, because it is allowed to retain its actuality – to still be itself – whilst serving a symbol for something bigger. Parakeet is absolutely, unapologetically a piece of campaigning theatre about protection of birdlife in Thanet. But the parakeets are simultaneously emblematic of something bigger and the activism to protect them a statement of wider intent, of a way of being. And second, because the show hits the metaphor so hard that its overtness feels actually virtuous: if you’re proud of something, why hide it?
It certainly doesn’t suggest a lack of deftness in Aphrodite’s writing, which is subtle when it wants to be. Tam, an Eritrean refugee, explains her homeland for the other band members: “you know Ethiopia, it’s just next door” – a devastating understatement for anyone with even a cursory understanding of the two nations’ recent history. Elsewhere, Aphrodite’s dialogue can be wonderfully lyrical, with complex constellations of images; syntax that lifts and glides.
In fact, one of the things I like about this production (and, can you tell, I really like it quite a lot?) is that the characters and their politics are allowed to be goofy without being invalid. The Parakeets’ activism starts from feeling rather than analysis. They don’t have to know everything to be allowed to be right. They don’t have to have thought to the end of everything to be allowed to begin.
But having begun, what next? Parakeet feels too short. The activists’ fight to protect Thanet’s parakeets reaches its conclusion, but the band fight on. Especially given how that main plotline concludes, I want to know what battles are next. I want one more song. Or really, is it just that Parakeet’s music and colour make the whole thing so catchy that when I left, I wanted to go straight back in and watch it again?
Parakeet is on at Summerhall until 25th August. More info and tickets here.