Helium (Online review)

Helium (Online review)

One of the most difficult aspects for the theatre world over the last eighteen months must have been getting a fledgling company and debut production off the ground. One such group in this position is Grumble Pup formed in Reading and who aimed to launch at Edinburgh 2020 – well we know what happened with that. Instead, they have finally taken their first steps at Docklands arts venue The Space with a week long production of a new play Helium. It’s good to see this venue continuing to champion the under represented. The play was also livestreamed last night and the production suggests that they are a group with distinct promise.

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Grumble Pup founder James Turner is also the author of this debut piece and as inspiration has used the fascinating if extremely  chilling real life case of Sharlotte Hydorn an American in her 90s who ran a mail order business selling do-it-yourself asphyxiation kits for people seeking to terminate their own existence. Hydorn claimed her so-called “exit kits” were intended to help the terminally ill who had no other choice, though it became clear she performed no background checks or asked any questions of clients. Branded a “death dealer” she eventually found herself taken to court – for tax evasion!! In Helium, Hydorn has become Judith (Sara Dee) a quietly spoken rather ordinary woman who provides a more personal level of service by visiting her clients to deliver materials and advise and support though she does stop short of actually carrying out the fatal deed. Judith (like Hydorn) reveals her motivation as being the prolonged death of her husband from cancer and wishing to ensure that others do not suffer in the same way. But she has clearly moved on from this position as Ben (Steven Nguyen) has other non-medical reasons for wishing to end his life. While she ostensibly leaves any decisions and certainly any action-taking to him, Dee invests the character with a rather insidious manner whereby she gets into Ben’s head; it begins to seem as though her motivation may be something more than pure altruism. And towards the end of the play we chillingly see Judith actively seeking out a new victim/client who has fallen on desperate times.

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Beyond the central and fascinating confrontation between the enabler and the enabled there is a complicated web of relationships between other characters – Ben’s work colleague Chloe (Elspeth Goodman, who particularly impresses), his ex Kate (Mollie McManus) and her current though on-off other half David (Thomas Sparrow). Their scenes go some way to explaining why Ben has reached the desperate stage he has. The problem is that for a long while (about 40 minutes or so) we seem to be watching two separate plays as there are few immediately obvious connections to be made until the moment when Chloe enters the secondary scenario. The last half hour, though, is full of twists and revelations which I thought could have done with being more evenly spaced throughout the play; this might also have prevented them seeming quite so contrived. I also wasn’t sure about filling the gaps between the main plot with other aspects of what might loosely be termed mental health concerns – uncommunicative withdrawal, anger management, trust issues, domestic abuse and so on. Perhaps it is all there to suggest the sort of atmospheres and situations on which a character such as Judith can feed but personally I found they diluted the main body of the play; I would have been just as impressed if the piece had maintained its focus on Judith/Ben and concentrated on the main scenario.

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The staging is a little cramped as it tries to fit two distinct locations (three if you count the coda) into the small space (in one sense the venue’s name is a little ironic) and the lighting moves us between them. This was somewhat uneven with centre stage being in too deep a shadow. While I totally appreciate that the stream was not the primary concern of the playmakers, the single camera set up was only just adequate to switching us back and forth. The cardboard set designed by Phyllys Egharevba was an ingenious way to do a lot on a limited budget and can presumably be packed down flat for travelling purposes and, eventually, recycled – bravo for that.

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Grumble Pup have made a fine start and will, I’m sure, have learned many valuable lessons in mounting this production which I hope they will continue to revise and refine. Let’s face it, if they can get their act together over the course of the last eighteen months and get their first play in front of the public then they clearly have the reserves to make a success going forward. I wish them all the best.

Helium was available as a one off live stream; the play continues live at The Space for another couple of days

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