Work colleagues Ben (Steven Nguyen) and Chloe (Elspeth Goodman) are not just bored at work, they are both bored of life, just for very different reasons. It’s the end of Chloe’s shift at the party supplies store, but she doesn’t want to go home to her husband: she never seems to want to go home nowadays. Tonight, however, Ben is rather keen to get rid of her. Especially when Judith (Sara Dee) turns up for her regular order of helium – she does seem to have a rather lot of birthdays to blow balloons up for! This opening scene sets Helium up nicely, bringing in concepts of what life should be for, unforgiving grief and whether eternal happiness might just be ever so dull.
Alternating with this trio are David (Thomas Sparrow) and Kate (Mollie McManus), the other halves of Ben and Chloe, who are also in the midst of ending their affair. Or at least Kate is trying to end it, David is not so willing. Whilst on the surface it would appear this pair are the happier halves of their respective couples, “just because someone looks ok, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.”
James Turner’s writing gives real depth to Ben and Chloe. There is sorrow behind their workplace banter and in the way they deflect from any serious conversations. Unfortunately, David and Kate feel just a little bland in comparison. You can (just about) understand Kate’s sadness as you realise what it was that drove her and Ben apart, but David just lacks any real personality. Truthfully, remove this pair from the story and it wouldn’t feel that noticeable. If anything, it would allow us more time with the Ben-Chloe-Judith dynamic, which is way more interesting to work out. Currently, David and Kate feel included to add further depth to Ben and Chloe, not as characters with their own sorrows.
And of that trio, Judith is the most enigmatic, perhaps because she is based loosely on a real person, described in the show blurb as a “death dealer”. She is full of wisdom, practically angelic in her advice to Chloe about doing something more with her life, yet almost insistent with Ben that he should end it all. Judith makes for a fascinating character. Is she angel of mercy or angel of death? Is she misguided in her desire to help people “take a short cut on the journey of life” or simply malicious?
As well as this dynamic trinity, there should be high praise for Izzy Carney’s directing. She makes great use of Phyllys Egharevba’s split stage design, allowing the play to flow seamlessly between scenes. On one side is the stock room, on the other is David and Chloe’s home, yet neither half ever intrudes upon the other. As well as functioning well, Egharevba’s set is a joy to behold; boxes and card with drawings on to represent household items. Whether this was simply a cost saving decision or whether it was meant to represent something that I’ve missed, it really doesn’t matter, it’s full of lovely little touches, especially the ‘mirrors’ drawn on the rear wall.
Helium is worthy of its time on stage, although some heavy rewrites to tighten up the supporting characters and their back stories would give it a more powerful punch. But even in its current form, within its 70 minutes there are enough moments of intrigue about whether life is fair to make it an interesting watch.
Written by: James Turner
Directed by: Izzy Carney
Set design by: Phyllys Egharevba
Produced by: Grumble Pup Theatre
Helium is on at the Space Arts Centre until 10 July, and will then be available on-demand for a further two weeks. Full details can be found via the below link.