Review of ‘Helen and I’: A gnarled family tree

McHugh has a skilled hand for creating mood, sly dialogue and psychological excavation, but seems less concerned with the mechanics of plot

’I’  could be anyone: Rebecca O’Mara as Lynn, Paul Hickey as Tony and Cathy Belton as Helen in Druid’s production of Meadhbh McHugh’s ‘Helen and I’. Photograph:  Ros Kavanagh

’I’ could be anyone: Rebecca O’Mara as Lynn, Paul Hickey as Tony and Cathy Belton as Helen in Druid’s production of Meadhbh McHugh’s ‘Helen and I’. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

Helen and I ***
Mick Lally Theatre, Galway

Personal pronouns can be persuasive things, don’t you find? Who, for instance, is the “I” in Helen and I, Meadhbh McHugh’s debut drama, in which the branches of a family tree have become gnarled with twisting responsibility?

Helen, played with assurance and subtlety by Cathy Belton, is a free spirit now slung with various duties: vigilant daughter to a dying father, wary single mother to a teenager, and watchful elder sister to the disordered Lynne. But if Rebecca O’Mara’s Lynne is “I”, we may be in trouble.

In director Annabelle Comyn’s taut production for Druid, we first meet Lynne alone in the kitchen, speaking agitatedly to herself and wearing slightly more make-up than Bette Davis as Baby Jane. O’Mara gives a fascinating performance, manic without being overbearing, while suggesting that this is the least reliable person to be given control of the narrative.

Taking its cue from her, perhaps, Philip Stewart’s music is similarly distrait, like a broken music box. In Aedín Cosgrove’s involving design, the kitchen where they wait out their father’s last days forcibly resembles a bunker: sunken, well-stocked and surrounded by the audience.

“Nothing perishable,” Helen says of the groceries, and the line doubles as a mordant joke. Lynne has even proudly found a new calling – as an embalmer, clearly practising on herself. If something is being preserved here, during a sweltering Galway summer, it is the past. And in this small-town stasis, the sisters fall into childish things; snapping, competing or defending.

The arrival of Lynn’s husband, Tony (Paul Hickey), trails unresolved romantic histories with each of them. Tony becomes a contested possession (men are marginal figures and Hickey acts accordingly), and the provenance of Evvy, Helen’s daughter, becomes an unanswered question.

McHugh has a skilled hand for creating mood, sly dialogue and psychological excavation, but seems less concerned with the mechanics of plot. The imminent death of an offstage father, signalled only by a rattling cough, has less consequence for the daughters than the shadow of their long-deceased, detached mother, idolised by Lynn and resented by Helen. (“I had no mother. I was your mother!” snaps the latter.) Seána O’Hanlon’s cocksure Evvy may be only lightly curious about the identity of her father, but as details emerge in ebbs and flows you watch it awaiting clarity.

If, frustratingly, it never quite arrives, that may be because Helen and I is really about lives through ellipses, where harder truths about fractured family roles are left unspoken and the question of who cares for whom – and why – is forever unconfirmed. Such things, the play suggests, are always subjective: that “I” could be anyone.

Until Sept 18; then Civic Theatre, Tallaght, Sept 27- Oct 1 as part of Dublin Theatre