Writer: Maedbh McHugh
Director: Annanbelle Comyn
Reviewer: Sarah Hoover
The heat is on in Helen and I, a Druid world premiere by new playwright Meadhbh McHugh, and so is the pressure. Sisters Lynn and Helen set up camp in their childhood home to nurse their father in his final days, and on the sunken stage-in-the-round the pressure continues to increase with past and present grudges, injuries, and secrets forcing their way into the bodies of Cathy Belton (Helen) and Rebecca O’Mara (Lynn). O’Mara is tightly monitored from her caked-on makeup to her between-scene physicality, while Belton arrives sweat-soaked and expansive, instantly taking control of the space. Control is the theme here, and McHugh pulls her characters subtly towards and away from taking that control over an uncontrollable situation. The sisters’ mother was distant and died early, forcing Helen to parent Lynn in a relationship that continues into adulthood. A young pregnancy and then single motherhood (teenage daughter Evvy played with plenty of heat by Seána O’Hanlon) kept her in the county. But Helen, like all the visible characters, is precarious and unpredictable, seductive and repellent. She uses her strength to protect and to bludgeon. When her breakdown comes Belton performs it delicately with a graceless grace.
Even Tony (Paul Hickey) is complicated despite the character being primarily a marker of the sisters’ struggles for control. Hickey’s timing as tension-breaker is impeccable, and he shows just enough real empathy to make you believe there is more to the man than meets the eye. Likewise O’Hanlon’s Evvy is more than simply a young version of Helen, though her wildness and intensity (and their conflicted effects on Tony) are uncannily similar. Though some of the memories and parables are a bit expositional or on-the-nose, director Annabelle Comyn’s staging always keeps our attention on the spaces between characters and their shared histories.
Aedín Cosgrove’s set is unique, with clean and evocative design reminiscent of a storage cellar where pasts are not quite buried, but even three rows into the house action on its floor is lost – which is disappointing as Lynn’s disintegration there is a highlight of the production. O’Mara’s deliberation during the train-wreck is hilarious and horrifying, and deftly reflects the mess left on the stage. Philip Stewart’s sound design also jangles nerves while it fascinates, and Cosgrove’s lighting adds a sickly heat reminiscent of Tennessee Williams to Comyn’s bellicose staging.
It is satisfying to see these complex women given room to expand and collapse on stage, and this production marks a response to the demand for the voices of varied Irish experience.
Runs until 1 October as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival | Image: contributed