The audience of eight alight themselves expectantly on a handful of deck chairs, next to a caravan. A young woman comes out and introduces herself as Catherine. She makes a game of guessing our names and getting us to guess the names of each other. She cheerfully admits that this is like one of those awkward ice-breaker activities. But something else is going on. Right from the off we are being asked to think about each other and where we all have come from. And then Catherine invites us into the caravan to tell us her own story.
Thus begins Mobile, the latest innovative show from The Paper Birds company, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016, and now touring the UK. It is the second show in their “class” trilogy and fits neatly into the company’s aim to make social and political productions that are relevant and will provoke discussion. Jemma McDonnell – co-director, with Kylie Walsh, of Mobile – states in the programme that as a play about social mobility it is intended to ask “who you are, where you have come from and the influence your parents and their upbringing has had on you”. The play also asks us the more difficult question of how we actually feel about all this. The joy of being invited into the caravan to sit squashed up with Catherine and the other audience members is that each personal story or political message, whether told by Catherine herself or through any number of innovative audio visual tricks, cannot help but take on another dimension for us as individuals. We cannot help but be part of the discussion as we listen both to Catherine’s perspective, and to the verbatim testimony of participants in a sociological research project on social mobility, and compare their experiences with our own lives.
The technical side of the show is a marvel. The caravan itself is a box of magic tricks with window screens taking us on journeys, voices coming out of household objects and lights creating the possibility of magic amidst a more melancholy atmosphere of real people facing up to reality. Yet it also feels like we have been invited into a real place, a real person’s home, albeit a temporary one. A lot of this is down to the engaging story of Catherine, played here by Shona Cowie (in a role she shares with Olivia Birchenough and Georgia Coles) who was mesmerising. Catherine tells us how her own social mobility has stalled, how she is now living in her mother’s caravan as she struggles to get her life back on track. The character evokes real empathy, while never trying to make us feel sorry for her. At the same time her narration is a strong focus for the stories of the many.
The strength of the piece is in the conversation it creates about society and our values. Nick Clegg’s speech, where he invokes a Britain where “fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did” is played several times forcing us to ask to what extent this is really possible. But Mobile also acknowledges that social mobility is not just a good thing, it has a far more complex impact than we might acknowledge, particularly on those who endeavour to ”escape” their upbringing for something “better”, and yet remain all too aware of what they might have left behind.
All this in such a short play. I look forward to seeing more from The Paper Birds, in particular the final part to their trilogy, whatever that might be. Mobile is on for one more day in Dundee, running in forty minute slots outside the Rep from noon until 8.15pm, so catch it if you can. It is a unique theatrical experience, and one that will stay with me for a long time.