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Grumble Pup Theatre’s Helium at The Space | Review

Tackling some deep and pertinent subjects, Helium cannot, fortunately, be deemed to be full of hot air. It fails to follow the formulaic narrative arc of many new plays in recent years. It’s not so much that everything’s more or less okay before suddenly a critical incident comes along and messes the lives of the characters up. Rather, tragedy has already struck Ben (Steven Nguyen), who lives above the shop he runs. Naturally, he doesn’t want to talk about it, or so he tells his colleague Chloe (an engaging Elspeth Goodman) in one of their post-work conversations. It hardly takes a brain surgeon to work out what’s really going on when Chloe admits she spends each evening with Ben, although she is married to David (Thomas Sparrow).

Grumble Pup Theatre’s HeliumDavid, meanwhile, has Kate (Mollie McManus) over at his place. This was a story that was going to get more than a little messy. I’m still not sure what to make of David: at surface level, there are the hallmarks of an abuser, with elements of both physical and psychological abuse on display. But the part feels rather underwritten, with an almost throwaway remark from Chloe about him behaving with aggression for as long as she has known him being pretty much the full extent of the background detail. Why, really, is he like that?

Completing the on-stage characters is Judith (Sara Dee), who drops by ostensibly to buy some – wait for it – helium. A friend of Ben, she teases out (after much persuasion) some background information about why Ben is in such an emotional state. But with Chloe and Kate, in separate scenes, also displaying reticence to speak frankly and openly, it takes a while to put the pieces of the narrative puzzle together. I found working it all out quite an enjoyable experience, despite the serious topics and themes, which makes me wonder how invested I would be on a second viewing of the show.

There’s something inherently British about not wanting to pour one’s heart and soul out, and the production seems to (ironically subliminally) raise a point about the ‘stiff upper lip approach’ not always being the most optimal for getting through life’s difficulties. Some controversial points are made about being taken by one’s own hand, with Judith talking about weighing up momentary pain in the process of dying against a lifetime of grief and depression. Spoiler alert: none of the characters actually take their own lives, mostly thanks to some borderline contrived movements of other characters, including a door opening with the sort of precise timing as would be required if this were a comedy farce.

The show could benefit from some direct addresses to the audience, which would help gain a more comprehensive understanding of the characters and what they are really thinking. There are some plot twists that I didn’t see coming, however, and while the play demonstrates how actions have consequences, it also considers how unfair life can be thanks to external circumstances outside people’s control. There aren’t any straightforward solutions to the characters’ plights (this isn’t musical theatre). Okay, so there were a few missed lighting cues along the way on opening night. But that hardly stops this from being an intriguing and thoughtful experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

In the wake of tragedy, Chloe, Ben, Kate, and David are slowly coming to realise one simple truth – bad things tend to happen to good people. They’re looking for a way out. And sometimes escape looks like a friendly face, a plane ticket, a tank of helium…

Inspired by the true story of Sharlotte Hydorn, a 91-year-old who made headlines in the 2010s for selling homemade suicide kits, no questions asked, Helium is a challenging exploration of coping, hope, and loneliness that dares to delve into the rationale behind our most unthinkable acts. How can we overcome isolation? Why don’t we always do the right thing? And, most of all, where do we go from here?

This is a brand new play by Grumble Pup Theatre, a fledgling company founded in Reading and led by talented young artists who are dedicated to bring powerful new writing to the stage.

Directed by Izzy Carney and Written by James Turner.

The Space
269 Westferry Road
London, E14 3RS
8:00pm 6th – 10th July 2021
https://space.org.uk/

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