There’s always a lively buzz at the Vault Festival. Once a year, an array of live shows take place under the graffitied arches in the heart of Waterloo over eight weeks. The works presented are varied in genre, so the event attracts many people wishing to see something alternative and fresh.
A new piece by theatre company N2P (Nothing to Perform), commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, will be showing for four nights this week. Helen is a fictional play based on the true, but little-known story of Britain’s first astronaut. In 1989, an ordinary woman from Sheffield, Helen Sharman, responded to an advert that said: “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary.” At the time, she was working as a chemist at the Mars chocolate factory. Thousands applied for the position, but it was Helen who was recruited for Project Juno, and she set off to space two years later, aged just 27.
The play imagines how this extraordinary story may have unfolded. The protagonist is shown as an insecure and directionless girl struggling with an absent, yet controlling love interest, an overbearing family and a tedious job. She mostly sits on her bed, making and receiving phone calls. Her sister calls her a “genius”, but she doesn’t show much ambition. When she is selected as the first British astronaut, she is completely overwhelmed by the resultant media attention and she must also withstand being separated from her family during the long training period in Russia.
There are a number of elements that give the play an amateurish feel – like the overuse of ringing phones (and the short snappy conversations that follow), Helen’s exaggerated hyperventilating when she is anxious, or having the characters speak all at once to show the pressure being placed on the protagonist. These features could be overlooked if the story had been presented in a gripping way, but Helen portrays its lead as an apathetic person whose involvement in the space mission comes about randomly and, going by her attitude, perhaps unintentionally. This leaves a huge gap between the character and her mission.
The only interesting elements are those belonging to the original story, but even then an opportunity is lost to create an engaging buildup or a strong foundation to make the audience connect with Helen. Nevertheless, the creators bring to the stage a fascinating story that deserves to be heard.
Helen is on at The Vaults from 14th until 17th March 2023.
Read more reviews from our Vault Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Vault Festival website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: