The Girl and Her Balloon is well-intentioned and genuinely heartfelt, but comes across a little too shallow to handle the meaty topic of homelessness in a way that delivers new insight. We follow ‘the Girl’ through her life, loosely connected between stories by her attachment to a red balloon and her lifelong dream to sell balloons from a campervan. She tells us about her business, how she came to be homeless, her time in a squat and how her friends become addicted to hard drugs. Girl copes through constant drinking, which she rationalises as at least better than the hard stuff. While this piece takes a decent go at representing the experience of homelessness, there’s not a lot to go away thinking about, and there are a few production elements which let this piece down.
Writer-Performer Amy Wakeman is the sole performer in the piece, as she emerges as the Girl from a tent in the morning with can of Fosters in hand. She speaks with a heavy Cockney drawl, her character’s cognition clearly marked by the rough time she’s had on the streets and the subsequent alcohol abuse. She tells us all about her balloon business, and even begins designing bespoke balloons for the audience members. This feeds into a long story about a girl called Becky who she met in a squat. Becky had hoped to be a hairdresser, but soon finds herself drawn into the world of drug abuse and becomes a victim of sex trafficking. The other main story we hear about is how the Girl met a Big Issue seller that she fell for, had a romantic saunter along the Southbank with, and then fell out with. The stories feel authentic and true to life, given their provenance, but they don’t really ask us to consider a lot.
This is my main criticism of this show – it’s a presentation of stories with not much oomph behind it. I left thinking “I’ve heard a couple of stories from the streets of London”, and that’s all. There’s no nuance or question that the piece wants us to ask ourselves, no ethos about the deeply complex and political issue of homelessness. This piece just says “Here I am!” and that’s really all it has to say. Wakeman is a decent performer, but you can’t help but feel that the choice of presentation of the character replicates a lot of stereotypes about homeless people – drunken, drawn into squatting, lost. The Girl says she lost this a long time before, and she’d wanted to be the “Hippie girl selling balloons” – does this mean her homelessness is self-imposed? Is that what I’m supposed to take from that? I’m genuinely asking that question. Her aspiration is to live in a camper van, and that feels like a nice point, but it doesn’t feel that Wakeman has much to say about the origins of homelessness, how we help people in that situation or help people get off of the streets.
My secondary issue with this piece lies in the multimedia production, which feels exceptionally slap-dash and even a bit lazy. The shadow puppetry is done against an unironed bedsheet, and some of the cut-outs are supposed to have text on them but you can barely read it. While an effective storytelling technique thematically, I would have felt much more of an impact had the shadow puppetry been in-situe, as it would avoid the pretty garish font choices that look like they were made in Powerpoint.
This effect was doubled by the fact that it appears the technician couldn’t be bothered to full screen Windows Media Player during the performance, nor correct the squint projection over the canvas. The whole multimedia aspect of this performance feels a little undercooked. These are easy fixes, but it strikes of indolence to not have corrected them before the performance began. I have seen plenty of shadow puppetry and multimedia done exceptionally well on a cheap budget, so there isn’t really an excuse.
This piece means well, the performance from Wakeman herself isn’t half-bad, but the execution strikes of laziness and needs some solid direction if it wants to have an impact on the audience.
Recommended Drink: Well it would have to be a can of Fosters, wouldn’t it?
Catch The Girl and Her Balloon at TheSpace on North Bridge – Fife Theatre, at 18:45 until August 27th. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.