‘Broke’ – how often do you conclude this after checking your bank balance? It’s certainly a topical subject and one which The Paper Birds approach with characteristic sensitivity and good humour. Not only is the piece festooned with vox pops, brought to life with witty character acting and a quick change of costume, they personalise the work with their own, somewhat challenged financial history.
Out of all of the interviews they conducted regarding people’s personal finances, they choose 28 year old Sally, a single mum, to be the prominent case study in the piece. We see the extent of her spiral into more and more debt in an attempt to work her way out of it. Simply and elegantly the female contingent of the company play the character, indicated by passing a green headband back and forth between them.
Their choice of set creates both a sense of movement and stasis. The four black boxes on centre stage are shifted into various arrangements to indicate the different locations Sally visits, including a food bank, whilst the upstage bunk bed is a solid reminder of the cramped living conditions many people on a low income have to endure.
And as their genre denotes, this is a political piece, which takes great pleasure in lampooning certain politicians’ economic approaches in the past. A sock puppet lip-syncing Margaret Thatcher’s put downs to the opposition, achieves a remarkable likeness to the pursed expression of the former PM.
Whilst there is a certain idealisation of the struggling, single parent, and a necessary simplification of a complicated subject, the show makes up for it in being beautifully layered with so many voices, playful devices and the casts’ personal experiences. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is an inspired visual and narrative framing tool, making transparent themes of fantasy, childhood and, more darkly, commenting on the greed of lenders that keep the poor in debt.
Broke doesn’t inform us of anything we don’t already know; life is extremely hard when you have increasingly less money. It does, however, put an issue that is close to everyone’s heart on centre stage and gets us talking about it.