You could write what I know about the Trojan wars on the back of a papyrus stamp. Helen? Wasn’t she the awesomely beautiful woman who launched a thousand ships after the Judgement of Paris? And wasn’t he a mythological bloke, not that city famed for onions and gaiety. Further than that I cannot go, ignorant oik that I am. Reckon most of Wheathampstead’s latest theatre audience were in the same camp. Lots of references to famous Gods. Zeus and Aphrodite, the sex obsessed one, being only two of many. Ten minutes in of Helen’s opening speech, beautifully done I might say, and we could be forgiven for wishing for a Greek guide book and, simultaneously, thinking that dear old Alan (Ayckbourn) ain’t half as hard.
But you have to admire Wheathampstead Dramatic Society and their director, Malcolm Hobbs, for having the courage, or should I say nerve, for serving us up a dollop of marginal Greek theatre based on all those wars that the Trojans, and others, were so keen on. I say marginal because in this slant on Helen by Euripides, I am in danger here of suggesting I know what I am talking about, she is stuck outside the palace gates of an Eygptian King lamenting the loss of her husband Menelaus. It was at this point, about fifteen minutes in, that I ditched all the reference points. I was not going to appreciate anything the evening offered if I needed a crammer in Greek mythology. But it’s a play for God’s sake. It’s a woman trapped with a prospective marriage she don’t want and a husband she loves resurrected. Nothing hard about that. Seen hundreds of similar ilk. Euripides and his translator, Frank McGuinness and his bawdy language, may be giving us a glimpse of mythological icons but they were doing it in a way we could relate to. One day someone may write a domestic comedy on Hitler and Eva Braun. I somehow doubt it, but if they did you would not need any reference points. And, ultimately, you didn’t with this Helen and her Menelaus. Beyond the language and the history was that age old problem of sorting out your relationships. Happens all the time in Waitrose.
Wasn’t totally enamoured of the simple presentation. The impressive sound effects for clanging palace gates jarred with their prosaic view and the mixture of costume styles, including a 1950s tea lady, defied any internal logic. Perhaps Mr Hobbs was saying ‘It doesn’t matter what you are looking at, just listen to the words.’ If so, he was probably right because his Helen was an interesting story and quirky ancient and modern dress made us concentrate. As one of my companions said on the way home, this play sort of grew on you.
Much of that growing was down to Irene Morris’s central performance of the captured Helen. Her acting was head and shoulders above anything else on the stage and in both tragedy and comedy she, literally, worked her audience. Robin Langer, an outrageous King of Egypt with comic persona never seriously suppressed, made a nice contrast with the more earnest King of Sparta from Steve Leadbetter. The latter’s modern soldier boy, excellent strong diction, gave Mr Leadbetter his best role to date. Pip Dowdell nicely turned in that spiky gatekeeper from a northern council estate, her language certainly was, and Julie O’Shea looked magnificent, if a little young, in her splendidly colourful Egyptian Princess costume. Lighting (Bob Parry) was effective and sound (Jill Collis) even better. The opening storm effects, this director has a habit of grabbing your attention early, were particularly realistic. I know. I hate thunderstorms and can recognise a false one when it flashes at me.
So overall an evening which threatened to be daunting turned out to be pretty absorbing. Lots of words, many of the four letter variety, but at its heart a play about a woman desperate to get her man. Wheathampstead Dramatic Society are known for occasionally pushing out the dramatic boat. They did it here literally and I, for one, ain’t going to knock them for it. Besides, as well as an evening of theatre I can now talk knowledgeably for thirty three and a half seconds on the Trojan Wars. And that’s about thirty seconds above average on our street. Theatre is so enriching. Even when some of it comes from your programme notes. Roy Hall