Ask Me Anything is an immersive show based on hundreds of letters written by teenagers from across the country. Devised theatre company Paper Birds have crafted them into an exploration of what it’s like to be young, full of live music and nineties/noughties nostalgia.
Designer Rebecca Wood creates a garish teenage dreamscape for Georgie Coles, Rosie Doonan and Kylie Perry to perform the piece in. Brightly-coloured scatter cushions invite a sense of intimacy between performers and audience. The stage is divided into three distinct bedrooms, each an imagined replica of the performer’s own. Amongst the familiar analogue debris – band posters and retro knick-knacks– there are large digital screens hanging from the rig.
In the show’s opening moments, Paper Birds are playing a message from ‘Bridge It’, an Alexa-style virtual assistant. ‘Bridge It’ explains that use of phones is permitted, something that feels appropriate for a show with the key theme of communication across generations. There’s an impressive level of technology incorporated into this production; the aforementioned screens play AV design that’s essential to the show’s emotional beats. Even so, there’s a lot going on. In a very busy set with lots of disparate elements at play, the action feels chaotic. Perhaps it’s because I’m tired but for the duration I’m in sensorial overload (although I guess this does reflect the relentless hyperactivity of my own teenage brain).
A coherent musical thread pulls the randomness of Ask Me Anything somewhat into line. Rosie Doonan’s music is beautiful and commanding. Her songs about motherhood creep under the skin and I don’t want them to end. Georgie and Kylie join in during other musical numbers on guitar and drums. There’s a fun, punk sensibility to this, which might have been explored further – the show’s marketing (and screen-printed tote bags on sale at the Box Office) suggests a Riot Grrrl influence which the performance itself lacks.
I suppose it’s hard to add musical specificities to a show with such an expansive reach of ideas. Paper Birds set themselves a challenge by embarking on this project. Is it possible to answer the multitudes of concerns from over 100 teenagers in 80 minutes without an interval? No, but trying to do so does add dramatic tension.
Still, for a show about young people, there’s an absence of them on stage and for me, the gap between the performers recounting their lives as teenagers and the whispering voices of real teenagers was never quite bridged. Much of the show’s tone is light, and it shies away from some of the darker sides of adolescence until the end. However, despite its inconsistencies, Ask Me Anything is an enjoyable hour with important concerns at its heart; the need to listen to what young people have to say.
Ask Me Anything ran at Live Theatre, Newcastle from 30th January-8th February. It is currently running at VAULT Festival, London and tours the UK until 20th June. More info here.