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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: Helen and I

Cathy Belton as Helen in 'Helen and I'

Photo Credit: Ros Kavanagh


Brewing up a storm in Helen and I

There’s a moment early on in Meadhbh McHugh’s ‘Helen and I’ where you get the horrible feeling you're about to watch a car crash in slow motion. As if it’s trying to channel the ghosts of iconic female characters and cobble them together to fit into a nice, neat redemptive piece. There’s hints of Norma Desmond, Blanche DuBois, and even Lolita, all built around what appears to be a deconstructed ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,’ complete with the bitter and biting Hudson sisters, excessive make-up and an invalid. It all starts to feel as if its ideas and themes are overwhelming both its characters and story, which are pushing hard to be heard. Thankfully, some assured direction and assured performances take hold of the wheel and along with a clever and heartfelt reversal in the story, ‘Helen and I’ ultimately delivers a powerful, emotional whack. Indeed, in taking the road less travelled, ‘Helen and I’ arrives at some truly interesting places, with some deeply powerful moments and two utterly compelling performances.

In ‘Helen and I’ what plot there is revolves around an unseen, dying father and his two daughters, Helen and Lynn, who return to the family home to take care of him during his few remaining days. They’re excessively hot days for the rebellious Helen who, assured of her own infallibility and long suffering martyrdom, takes charge, as she always does, putting the fragile Lynn in her place. But Lynn is tired of being fragile and is quietly mounting a counter attack from behind her fortress of make-up. She’s quit her job in the post office to work as an embalmer, has been dealing with Dad pretty well by herself and has decided to go off her meds. None of which is impressing Helen, or Lynn’s husband Tony, who both share several things in common. They both know what’s best for Lynn, both have a complicated past and both have a crackle of sexual energy passing between them. Throw into the mix a fifteen-year-old daughter who doesn’t know her father but knows all about the world from a phone, and the already cracked family surface begins to shatter. Lies and secrets bubble through as American poets, incapable mothers, Irish dancing displays and forgotten histories are all revealed for what they are over drinks, card games and a good old family row.

Cathy Belton and Rebecca O'Mara in 'Helen and I'

Photo Credit: Ros Kavanagh

In Meadhbh McHugh’s problematic script there’s a constant sense of a storm brewing and of waiting for that storm to break. While there’s certainly a loud downpour, the whole never quite delivers the deluge it promised. Performed in the round, Aedin Cosgrave’s set and lighting design make this gamble pay off, even if sightlines are often sacrificed. Director Annabelle Comyn deftly negotiates the restrictions of script and space and elicits some incredibly strong performances in the process. Paul Hickey does a remarkable job as the lightweight Tony, as does Seána O’Hanlon as the teenage Eevy, though both suffer from their characters being little more than catalysts in the amassing of thunder that is Helen and Lynn. A torrent of rage and tears that sees Cathy Belton deliver an astonishing turn as the eponymous Helen, being utterly unforgettable. As is Rebecca O’Mara, giving a remarkable performance as the wounded and quietly defiant Lynn.

If McHugh’s tale seems to reference and reimagine the great Blanche and Norma, who this time get to walk away with a little agency and self-esteem, it also makes sure the Hudson sisters remember what’s important. This might all feel a little neat, and it might even forget its secondary characters, but McHugh’s debut with Druid of her first full length play is one in which its successes far outweigh its weaknesses. There’s certainly things which can be improved upon, but there’s also a heartfelt honest and potency to ‘Helen and I’ which lures you in. As well as two astonishing performances from Cathy Belton and Rebecca O’Mara, who bring down the thunder. And when they do, the downpour is just magnificent, and one of the most searingly powerful pieces of theatre you’re likely to see for some time.

Rebecca O'Mara, Paul Hickey and Cathy Belton in 'Helen and I'

Photo Credit: Ros Kavanagh

‘Helen and I’ by Meadhbh McHugh, produced by Druid Theatre Company, runs at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival until October 1st

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