Helen Sharman was the first Britain to go into space. Her story really should be well known; from how she replied to an ad to be part of the Russian Mir programme, through to selection out of over 16,000 applicants and her ultimately spending eight days in space on board the Mir Space Station.
Nothing To Perform have taken her story, but rather than focus on the more obvious space angle, instead concentrate on the personal elements; her relationships with sister, boyfriend and parents, along with her mother’s early onset dementia and her own less than perfect life that finds her bored, listless and in serious debt. It’s a brave decision to move away from the obvious, deserving applause. There does seems plenty to work with to make this a personal drama about family and ambition. But unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to gel correctly, leaving me with a sense that an opportunity has been missed.
The problems begin with the choice of venue. The Vault’s Cavern is in traverse, leaving the stage too stretched. You are constantly straining to see action at opposite ends. And with actors so far away, often with backs to us, words are lost due to muffled voices drowned out by the rumble of trains overhead. You are furthermore forced to decide which actor to watch. It is just not possible to take them all in as they perform from various positions, and things might work much better with a more traditional staging.
But worse, it felt like half the play is phone calls. Quite frankly I was ready to rip the speaker above my head off the wall had that loud, shrill phone rung just one more time. It is used to show the problems Helen is dealing with; bored with where her life is heading, a boyfriend too busy to find time for her, a sister who feels Helen is never there – but there are surely better ways. And it leaves actors too far apart, taking us back to the issue of sightlines.
The pacing also feels wrong. The opening scenes of phone call after phone call last way longer than surely necessary. Yet when the mention of the space programme is finally introduced, suddenly there’s a rush to get through those scenes. Surely this is where much of the interest lays, and yet it is almost as if they don’t want to really address it?
After countless scenes of phone calls, Violet Verigo’s Helen delivers a monologue. It’s a sudden and strange change in style, although more frustratingly, it finally allows the story to move forward more clearly. There is a similar, later monologue from her dad (Ben Gardner Gray) which equally comes as a pleasant diversion. But these moments are just too few and far between.
Some elements are, however, worthy of praise. The play superbly handles the sexual inequalities that almost stall Helen’s space journey before it even starts. We learn the preference was for a man to be the final selection, simply because of the space suit design! And this everyday sexism is reinforced by her relationship with her ignorant boyfriend (George Seymour) who shows little interest in her life, although his portrayal as so very self-obsessed seems a little over-caricatured.
Helen Sharman’s story deserves to be told, and it is admirable that Nothing To Perform attempt to do so in a less than obvious direction. But right now it feels badly let down by some odd choices, especially that damn phone ringing off the hook.
Written by: Scott Howland
Directed by: Harriet Taylor
Produced by: Nothing To Perform
Helen has completed its current run as part of VAULT Festival 2023.