Grumble Pup Theatre’s debut production of Helium is a dramatic crossover of stories about tackling the hardships of life and trying to find a way out.
Inspired by a true story, we see a retired woman, Judith (played by Sara Dee) take the sinister role of death, as she hands out tanks of helium to those who are considering suicide. However, she approaches this much like a level-headed sales executive, counting lives as commission, which is perhaps the most haunting part of the play.
James Turner’s innovative writing starts in two parts. Chloe (Elspeth Goodman) and Ben (Steven Nguyen) are drinking the night away at the back of the party store where they work. On the other side, a supposed couple, Kate (Mollie McManus) and David (Thomas Sparrow), are fighting. The fuel for the violent argument is initially unknown, but it is clear that another party is involved … and they seem to be sitting unknowingly at the back of the party store. It is revealed that the source of the conflict is a twisted love affair involving Ben, who has killed his and Kate’s son in a tragic accident. This whirlwind of traumatic events culminates in Judith’s arrival and the heavy thud of a helium canister.
Death is not shied away from in this piece. Turner’s daring writing explores the fears of dying but also envelops all the wrong ways of living. These cycles of despair and trying to find a way out seem oddly familiar, whether it be the desire to pack up all your bags and fly to India or looking for wisps of joy on a park bench. Each character blossoms with ornate humanity in the different ways one must survive under the weight of tragedy.
The theatre space is minimal, yet the way Phyllys Egharevba utilises the stage is impressive. Together with the warm and blue lighting separating the two stories on stage, the clash of environments between the swanky flat and old staff room become clear. The admirable use of sound is also minimal but effective. With the clear ring of people entering and leaving the shop, door slams and the sound of passing trains, these sound effects give an extra ambience and escape into the outside world beyond the stage.
With topics as big as life and death, it can be difficult to perform such high stakes to a point where melodrama is not involved. However, within the performance, I can see elements of such creeping in. Turner’s climactic writing mixed with Izzy Carney’s sometimes questionable direction creates a great surge of emotional turmoil that occasionally misses the mark. With this said, the great bond between Chloe and Ben at the end of the piece, having left her husband and battled his suicide attempt, cements the performance with warmth and gratitude for genuine friendship.
Amidst the noise of wealth, fake marriages and being told your life can easily be sold, this bond radiates from start to finish, and without it, this production would be lost in the dark.
Helium is playing at The Space until the 10th of July 2021. For more information and tickets, see: Helium – The Space