Review: Helen at the Hen and Chickens

If today we’re all too familiar with the concept of fake news, Euripides was a few centuries ahead of his time when he wrote Helen in 412 BC. An alternative view on the Trojan War, the play argues that Helen – whose seduction by Paris was the cause of the decade-long conflict – was actually in hiding in Egypt the whole time, while the Helen taken to Troy was no more than a copy created by the goddess Hera to punish Paris. Unfortunately, nobody knows about this, so they all blame Helen for the devastation waged in her name, leaving her desperate to expose the lie and save her reputation.

The story’s picked up in Egypt following the fall of Troy, when who should arrive shipwrecked and scantily clad on their shores but Helen’s husband Menelaus. His phantom wife conveniently vanishes into thin air just as he re-encounters the real one, and together they trick the Egyptian king Theoclymenus – who wants to marry Helen himself – into letting them go.

This new version of Euripides’ play comes from Theatre of Heaven and Hell, a company dedicated to producing absurdist plays and reviving forgotten gems. Helen is a bit of both; a little more comedy than tragedy, it moves through the story at a brisk pace, and doesn’t shy away from exposing its more farcical aspects. There are moments in Michael Ward’s production that feel a bit like Monty Python does Ancient Greece, contrasting sharply with the play’s slightly sinister opening and closing sequences, in which the masked and robed Chorus set the scene to a dramatic soundtrack.

As difficult as it is to categorise, Helen nonetheless makes for an entertaining hour of theatre. The women come out on top – Helen herself and the prophetess Theonoe, played by Elena Clements and Sarah Day-Smith respectively – emerge not only with the most dignity but also all the moral fibre, while the men are made to look like fools. Nicholas Bright and Darren Ruston play the famous leaders Menelaus and Theoclymenus as comically simple souls who are nothing without women to tell them what to do, and Brian Eastty and Marius Clements have two of the funniest scenes as messengers who patiently expose their rulers’ mistakes.

A surprising twist on an old story, Helen touches on some very modern themes, from feminism and victim blaming to fake news and the pointlessness of war. The scene in which one of Menelaus’ men questions their reasons for going to war in the first place is funny but painfully topical, and the responsibility placed on Helen’s shoulders for the actions of men invites us to ponder gloomily how much attitudes have really changed several centuries later.

It’s an odd little play, which is nothing like you might expect (let’s be honest: you hear Euripides, you don’t expect lines like, “We went to war for a cloud?”) but Helen is undeniably good – if slightly surreal – fun.

Helen is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 27th August.

Interview: Rachel Lee and Laura Taylor, Job’s A Good’Un

Job’s A Good’Un is a semi-autobiographical one-woman sketch comedy written and performed by Laura Taylor. Laura’s had 11 jobs in 10 years, from collecting glasses in a gangster-run bar in the Midlands to arranging flower baskets for Eva Longoria. Physical, narrative and highly relatable, the show includes all the ridiculous situations, eccentric characters and endless hours Laura’s spent in the workplace over the years.

“When I was bored in my jobs or was in a ridiculous situation, I thought it might be funny to put on stage,” she explains. “You meet so many characters in day to day life, and there’s something theatrical about that.”

Director Rachel Lee adds, “And as an extension of that, we think everyone’s been in a position where they hate their jobs or feel frustrated at certain workplace situations, whether laughable or just pure despair. We wanted to bring the ridiculous, emotional quality of that on stage.”


Since most of us will have had at least one or two rubbish jobs in our time, Rachel and Laura are hoping the show will be easy to relate to: “We’ve been discussing in our rehearsals how to make the connection with the audience and get them interested even though the storyline is very much autobiographical,” says Rachel. “I think people should come see it because it’s funny and it’s relatable. It’s a personal story, yes, but it is full of emotional moments that will make us go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been there!’ 

“I was reading a book and the author was talking about When Harry Met Sally – which is very different, obviously – and she describes that the film ‘has the precision of a personal story, but is actually interested in drawing out universal truths’. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

They’re also, obviously, hoping it will make us laugh: “A good comedy begins with a story that is engaging that people can relate to or are interested in,” says Laura. “The way that story is delivered is the secret to a good comedy.”

Rachel adds, “As a director’s point of view, I think the secret is to be aware of the elements that are funny, but also not milk them too deliberately.”

The show features in the final week of the month-long Camden Fringe, whose programme has included over 200 shows across 20 venues. “I think Camden Fringe gives shows such a great placing no matter big or small, and we’re very excited to contribute our story to everything that’s out there and feel part of something that’s bigger,” says Rachel.

Together, Rachel and Laura make up Smol & Ginger (so named because one of them’s small and the other’s ginger). “We were on the same Drama course at Goldsmiths and graduated a year ago,” explains Rachel. “We’re both really interested in telling stories, no matter the really personal ones, untold ones, weird ones that no one really thinks about.”

Finally, what would be their number one tip for anyone stuck in a job they hate? “Don’t let jobs define who you are,” advises Laura. “The people and situations that you find unbearable at the moment, let them drive you forward. Anything bad that happens at work remind yourself that you aren’t saving lives – unless you’re a doctor…”

Job’s a Good’Un is at Camden People’s Theatre on 25th and 26th August.

Review: Boom at Theatre503

What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? Call your loved ones, spend all your money, ditch the diet…? All good answers – unless you’re marine biologist Jules, who has a different approach. He’s predicted the imminent apocalypse by observing the behaviour of his fish, but having failed to convince anyone to take him seriously about the threat, he’s made his own arrangements: luring unsuspecting student Jo to his lab/bunker for what she thinks is a fun night of no strings sex. It’s only when she discovers a drawer full of diapers that it dawns on her Jules’ promise of “intensely significant coupling” might have been more than just good marketing…

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is a play of two halves. It begins as an enjoyably off the wall romantic comedy about two people thrown together in the most extreme circumstances. Will Merrick and Nicole Sawyerr are great as the unlikely couple – he’s an earnest nerd who genuinely can’t understand her reluctance to be Eve to his Adam; she’s a wannabe journalist with a sharp tongue, dismayed by her latest disastrous life choice. They’re so terrible together that it actually works… at least to begin with.

Then the world ends, and things take a bizarre and mildly baffling turn with the sudden intervention of Barbara. Up to this point, Barbara’s been sitting in the corner, pulling levers and providing enthusiastic percussive sound effects for what we now learn is a museum exhibit several millennia from today, educating future generations about “the Boom”. Barbara’s not supposed to talk, she informs us, before going on to do exactly that – frequently, and at great length.

It’s here that the play seems to lose its way a bit, as Barbara, played with joyous abandon by Mandi Symonds, goes pretty quickly from amusing and lovable to verbose and more than a little irritating as she constantly interrupts proceedings to talk about her own issues. Some of her monologues are utterly surreal (in particular the bit where – a propos of absolutely nothing – she decides she must tell us how she was conceived; and no, it’s not in the way you might think) and her behaviour increasingly erratic, which is entertaining but gets in the way of the play actually making a point. As a fan of dystopian fiction who’s fascinated by the psychology of survival, I was looking forward to a juicy exploration of Jules and Jo’s evolving relationship, but we spend less and less time with them as Boom slowly but surely becomes Barbara’s story instead. Having enjoyed the randomness because I assumed it would all make sense in the end, I left 90 minutes later with very little idea what I was meant to be taking away other than a feeling of slight bewilderment, and a new respect for fish.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
All this doesn’t mean the play isn’t funny; it is, and all three members of the cast give great performances. But the humour lies mainly in the awkward relationship between Jules and Jo, and in Barbara’s lively personality, rather than in the end of the world story itself. There are fewer laughs in the second half of the play – partly because, well, the world’s ended and our characters find themselves in dire straits; and partly because by this point things have got so bizarre it’s difficult to know how to respond to anything that happens.

For this reason, it’s difficult to give a conclusive opinion on Boom. It may be that in a few days’ time, something clicks into place and I suddenly get it. Right now, though, I’m still trying to figure out what hit me.

Boom is at Theatre 503 until 26th August.

Interview: Claire Rammelkamp and Danica Corns, A Womb of One’s Own

The founding members of emerging all-female theatre company Wonderbox – who include Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Claire Rammelkamp, Holly Bond, Larissa Pinkham and Olivia Early – met as members of the National Youth Theatre. “We got so comfortable with each other that we started oversharing about sex, periods, emotions, mental health, politics, relationships, wanking… the list goes on,” admits Claire. “So we decided to carry on doing that as a theatre company, and turn it into art. We want to explode taboos and share unheard stories with some filthy, fabulous feminism.”

They’re turning their attention first to the issue of abortion in their debut production A Womb of One’s Own, which runs at The Space from 15th-19th August.  “The play follows the story of Babygirl, an eighteen-year-old fresher who was raised Catholic by two strict elderly women and ends up getting pregnant the first time she has sex,” says Claire, who wrote and performs in the play, as she and fellow cast members Danica, Larissa and Carla bring Babygirl to life, revealing different aspects of her personality and an absurd cast of characters. “It starts off as a coming of age comedy; she’s learning how to flirt and get drunk, she’s exploring her sexuality, she’s trying not to embarrass herself on a date. Then all of a sudden she’s facing much bigger challenges.”

A Womb of One’s Own was inspired by Claire’s own personal experience: “I had an abortion at university, and I had no idea how to handle it because no one had ever spoken to me about abortions. Fortunately, I have a very supportive Mum and friends. Babygirl doesn’t have a mother, and she’s only been at uni a few weeks, so the play explores what it would be like to go through an abortion feeling totally alone.”

One of Wonderbox’s aims is to break the taboos surrounding abortion and get people talking about what’s traditionally been a difficult subject. “We’re still oddly hung up on old-fashioned notions of propriety when it comes to discussing abortion,” says Claire. “It used to be the same for divorce and homosexuality. Even periods. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some point, and yet people are largely silent about it. If we all spoke about it more then women wouldn’t feel scared or ashamed. We’ve still got a lot of education work to do to give women control over their own bodies and we need to make sure we don’t go backwards – like with Trump’s abortion gag order.”

Despite the heavy topic, Claire and her co-founders are quick to point out that the show is at times irreverent and laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m a firm believer in laughing at essentially everything, especially myself. We didn’t want to be didactic – an audience will pay much more attention to a comedy full of sex jokes than a lecture. It also helps to humanise a character; once the audience have shared a joke with Babygirl they’ll have more empathy when she starts having a hard time.”

And it seems to be working; they’ve been thrilled with early responses to the show, which include an endorsement in February from actor Paul McGann. “Our first performance was to a bunch of queer, feminist, theatre-lovers, so we were really preaching to the choir,” says Claire. “But then our second audience had middle-aged people, older people, Tories, and a vicar. The vicar was especially fond of it.”

Of course, starting a theatre company isn’t always easy, and co-founder Danica has no hesitation in identifying their biggest challenge: “Money! We’re a young, unfunded theatre company so this is of course the first and biggest obstacle we are having to overcome – but we are getting creative with how we do this. Finding rehearsal space free of charge has been and remains one of the biggest challenges we face, and so far we have been getting round this by using gardens, living rooms and empty classrooms at our universities/previous places of study. We even once did a voice warm-up on Clapham Common. Social media has also been a great alternative to a website for us in the first instance to help build our online presence while funding is scarce.

“Around 90% of the work we put into the company and the show is not in the rehearsal room,” she adds. “We’ve all had to turn our hands to other things and use our skills and knowledge effectively and efficiently. We’re lucky enough to have a photographer, a designer, a marketer and members with lighting technician knowledge within our company, so we haven’t had to hire anyone in yet – which would come with a cost. However, while we’re all working hard on this to get things off the ground, we have found it difficult balancing being creative and making the art with the admin and running the business side of the company – it’s a bit of a juggling act at the moment, and we’re still figuring this out. One of the things we are finding so important is timetabling separate rehearsals for creativity and meetings about important business stuff.”

Claire’s hoping that the show will speak to everyone, whether or not they have personal experience with abortion: “I hope if they’ve had an abortion, they’ll feel a sense of community, and that anyone who needs an abortion in future won’t feel so alone. I hope it encourages people to share their own experiences, and I hope it will make other people more understanding. I also hope everyone will wet themselves laughing.”

A Womb of One’s Own is at The Space from 15th-19th August.

Review: America’s Number One Detective Agency at the Drayton Arms

Written by Liv Hunterson and directed by Anna Marshall, Fatale Femme’s debut production America’s Number One Detective Agency is an enjoyably silly and suitably atmospheric – if a little more convoluted than feels strictly necessary – homage to the film noir genre.

Our heroine Vivian O’Connell (Fleur De Wit) is fighting to reclaim her crown as America’s top private detective, recently lost to her ex-boyfriend Bobby (Hamish Adams-Cairns) in a high profile case. But he gets all the best clients these days, so Vivian and her partner Joey (Siobhan Cha Cha) are reduced to helping out irritatingly perky aspiring actress Betty Channing (Alex Hinson), who seems to have acquired a stalker. Throw in a deranged gangster (Oliver David-Harrison), a dapper English gent (Iain Gibbons), and something about a gorilla(?), and the stage is set for a mystery caper that will take the gang all the way to Las Vegas. But will they all make it out alive…?

Arriving at the theatre is like stepping into an early 20th century jazz club, with a live band and singer playing in the corner while the actors lurk in the shadows, smoking and looking moody. The musical accompaniment works particularly well in maintaining the film noir atmosphere throughout the play, with singer Isabella Bassett taking on a very different role on occasion as Betty’s thuggish ex-husband, Freddie.

Under the direction of Anna Marshall, the cast of six give good individual performances but also work very well as an ensemble, keeping the action moving at a rapid pace throughout. (If anything it’s all a bit too fast – in such a complex plot where every detail counts, it’s easy to blink and miss something important.) Even when not directly involved in a scene the actors all remain on stage, either as secondary characters or as part of the set; the moment in the car is particularly well executed. I’m still not 100% sure if the problem with the door was part of the script or a set malfunction, but if it was the latter, then the cast are also to be congratulated on smoothly working around a frustrating technical glitch and turning it into a running gag.

With an even male/female split in the cast, it’s refreshing to see the women taking charge and driving the story forward, while the men are busy pining for lost lovers, cowering under tables and getting punched in the face. Fleur De Wit’s Vivian is a feisty heroine, keeping her cool despite the chaos unfolding around her, with strong support from Siobhan Cha Cha as Vivian’s trusty associate Joey, and Alex Hinson as Betty, the Hollywood starlet with hidden depths. Meanwhile the three men provide some of the best comedy moments, particularly Iain Gibbons as Teddy, who just can’t help putting himself in harm’s way whenever he feels a lady’s honour needs defending – even though the ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

America’s Number One Detective Agency is good fun, particularly for fans of the film noir genre; it certainly looks and sounds the part. The plot could benefit from being a little less complex, or the pace of the production taken down just a touch so the audience can keep up with the various twists and turns (and jokes). That said, this is still a very entertaining show, and a promising debut from Fatale Femme.

America’s Number One Detective Agency returns to the Drayton Arms on 6th and 7th August.