A caravan plays host to an exploration of social mobility in 21st century Britain as part of Orbit 2017
As I write, I’m sitting at a table in the bustling café of the HOME complex. About an hour ago, I was munching on a biscuit in a tiny white caravan, tucked somewhat jarringly between tall steel and concrete buildings. My feet are a bit damp — I got caught in the rain, as usual — but otherwise I’m working in relative comfort. Incidentally, working and comfort are some of the main topics we explored during our 40-minute journey into the condensed universe of the caravan.
We started with a little icebreaker. The weather was still acceptable, so we sat outside as we told each other a little bit about ourselves upon request of the protagonist, Catherine (Shona Cowie). There were six of us, all women of different ages, which created a nice sense of intimacy. We told snippets of our lives, unwittingly foreshadowing the stories we would hear throughout the show; the backgrounds of ordinary, real people serve as constant inspiration for The Paper Birds, who put together this little gem based on interviews conducted across the UK.
Then Catherine, cheerful and polite, welcomed us into her mum’s home. It was a cosy spot, messy but not shabby. She started narrating in the same casual manner as before, dwelling on considerations about what it means to come from a working-class background.
At this point, they seemed random, borderline hipster: assertions such as “Class is blurred nowadays” and “we are so quick to label ourselves and others” were lumped together with the likes of “with the Internet everyone is connected.” But nothing is random in this piece, not even the biscuits we shared or the pot noodles left lying around. Gradually, her narrative solidified, her assertions developed into a theme: the emotional toil brought about by the split between the working and middle-class.
In parallel, the caravan slowly turned into a spaceship. With seamless use of lighting and sound, the realist, personal story we had been following gave away to a surrealist and universal tale of crossing boundaries between classes, and our protagonist respectfully stepped aside to make room for the voices of others. What’s remarkable about this transition is that the play never strays away from solid, tangible experience. I’ve seen pure imagination stem out of a realistic beginning before, a trick as old as The Chronicles of Narnia (and just as powerful if well-used), but this play manages to elude surrealism even as it savours it.
Fantasy helps us reach for the stars and, in The Paper Birds’ own words, “want more, more than our parents.” However, for better and for worse, our roots always pull us back to Earth. No matter how successful, the characters feel like they’re stuck between two classes, two parallel dimensions that is, and nothing can transcend that divide. On the other hand, Catherine’s unyielding relationship with her mother proves invaluable when her comfortable life proves to be more fragile than our elevation-obsessed society would have us believe.