On a cold Sunday night, rugged up and ready, I turned the collar of my coat up and find my way to Old 505 Theatre. It’s true. I was slightly confused where I was headed. You see, it may be “old” to some, but it’s very new to me. So I phoned some friends attempting to clarify where I’m going somehow I managed to talk to Gareth Boylan who tells me to head to the grey door next to an Indian restaurant on Elizabeth Street… buzz the doorbell… and head up the lift.

The Sunday night street is battered by Saturday night’s refuse, chip packets, empty beer bottles… it’s dark and the neon glow of the convenience stores makes me aware of all the shadows, and the cracks in the pavement. It feels like New York or a darker side of Paris.

Though the doors – the lift is small and it’s white painted walls are scratched and covered in graffiti. Etched images and slogans into the paintwork screech at me. It feels like anarchy.

But it’s not. It’s the very edge of Independent theatre. The absolute edge. Edgy.

Paper signs flap in the evening breeze and guide my way as the signs to the space ask me to follow the trail snaking around the building. The walls are a confusion of coloured visual cacophony and I feel the swell of curiosity rise in me… I am brimming with anticipation.

That night I had been lovingly beckoned by actor/writer Helen O’Leary… and if you know Helen or her work, and her bright eyed enthusiasm for a good yarn, you know such an invitation is impossible to resist. It is a short run, a test before O’Leary refines and re-launches it for the Sydney Fringe – so this is a showing for a privileged few, and I count myself very lucky to be granted that privilege.

My Paris is Helen’s story. Tracing a Created during an intense time – My Paris is the artistic “eye” of a familial “storm” – and the resulting show is a whirlwind of memory, observation, confession, impersonation, homage, commentary, explanation and reflection. But please don’t get the wrong impression this isn’t a sob story, nor is it an arrogant showcase of O’Leary’s talent. This is a gentle offering. An offering that asks us to reach back and pull at the awkward, painful moments of family, and self, and then allows us to laugh.

The youngest born into a family of eight children, three of whom are sick, Helen traces back to the beginning of her life -in a cardboard box. It’s a hilarious and nostalgic portrait of Australian life in Brisbane at the end of last century. But more than that, this is a personal story about learning how to live. And about learning how to give oneself permission to live whilst surrounded by terminal illness…

Dressed only in black tights and a red hooded dress, we see Helen shift and flicker between a six year old child and a chain smoking adult actor. Between deviant and a mad grandmother. Between the internal monologue of the time and the retrospective commentary. What is remarkable is perfect balance between the detail of the story and the rhythm of the language… Between the characterisation and the realisations. O’Leary treads a line between the sublime and the ordinary like a tightrope walker. We listen like friends being told a ripping yarn at a pub over steak and chips. We hang out for the next chapter to be revealed – the next revelation of a life lived passionately. We laugh with O’Leary as she impersonates her relatives, we cry with her when the sobering reality of her gene pool is recounted. We will her into success and into love, and into defiance of a life half lived, or a life unliveable. And we love her.

We love her wicked child’s mind, her sweet vulnerability, her weary cyncism, her unrelenting optimism. We love her because of her strength in being vulnerable. We love her because she’s funny. Because she’s wise. Because she allows us to see that which is most terrifying, our dreams. And for that, how can we feel anything but deep, warm admiration and enduring inspiration?

If you can see this show in September as a part of The Sydney Fringe, do. Its a poignant, hilarious show woven with care and love. Tender, bright, full of hope despite being set in Brisbane.