When theatre makers The Paper Birds told teenagers across the UK that they could ask them any question they liked, they were perhaps not quite prepared for the kind of questions that they would be asked. Directed by Jemma McDonnell, Ask Me Anything, playing at VAULT Festival as part of a tour, is the culmination of the exercise and seeks to answer as many of the questions as possible in an innovative and riveting piece of theatre.
Georgie Coles, Rosie Doonan and Kylie Perry reached out to schools and youth theatres across the UK from a variety of backgrounds. They simply said ‘hey, young people, ask me anything’. The response was overwhelming, and many of the questions asked centred around the kind of themes you would expect from teenagers, from “what even is a mortgage?” and “How do you make an apple cake that isn’t all claggy?” to more intimate questions about sex and relationships.
Some of the questions were much harder, and it soon becomes apparent that mental health issues, depression, and suicide looms large in the teenage mindset. These difficult questions are symbolised by the whispering voices emerging from a simple cardboard box at the front of the stage, and the trio of performers, though reluctant at first, bravely delve in to these traumatic problems.
The way the show is presented is incredibly clever, each of the performers answer the questions in their own way. We have readings from a teenage diary, music and songs, and a sitcom filmed live in front of a studio audience (that’s us by the way). Some of the questions are answered by people more appropriately suited to do so, via recorded footage played on the screens around stage.
All of these devices make Ask Me Anything an incredibly engaging piece of theatre, with a deeply profound message at its heart. It proceeds at breakneck speed from one format to the next, and at times the audience are overwhelmed by the amount happening on stage, a clever nod to the overwhelming amount of information now available to young people online.
The highlight of the performance has to be the music from Rosie Doonan, although all three performers contribute with the equipment of a full band nestled in to the three teenage bedrooms which make up the set. There’s a comedy song, and a couple of really beautiful and touching numbers, but then halfway through there’s a rock anthem where Rosie is saying to her son to ‘Be The Kind of Man’. It’s the kind of song that could easily hit the number one spot in the charts, and if you listen to the words closely enough, will hit you like an unexpected punch in the guts.
The three performers grew up in the nineties and early noughties, so there are moments that are wonderful trips down memory lane, but in essence this show is saying the older generation (if you class mid-thirties as old) have a message that can be shared with the younger generation, all it takes is for them to ask, and in turn, be listened to.
Ask Me Anything succeeds in bridging the generational gap in a show that is as much about having a conversation as it is anything else. But it also manages to say it’s okay to not be okay in a superbly innovative style. This heartfelt and inspirational piece of theatre needs to be seen by as many young people as possible, but perhaps the ‘older’ generation can learn a lot from it too.