We’ve reached the final week at VAULT Festival. Three years and two further cancelled festivals after VAULT 2020 was forced to prematurely close its doors, the festival faces an uncertain future after losing its iconic Waterloo vanue. As the #SaveVAULT campaign battles on, a production epitomising the resilience of this well-loved fringe festival finally has its live premiere after its own series of Covid-related setbacks. Fittingly playing in the vast space of the Cavern, Helen shines a spotlight on the little known story of first Brit in space.
Written by Scott Howland and directed by Harriet Taylor, Helen tells the true story of Helen Sharman who, at age 27, beat nearly 13,000 other applicants to be selected for a privately sponsored, British-Soviet space mission. Originally from Sheffield, Sharman had moved to London to complete her PhD at Birkbeck University. She was working as a chemist for Mars (the chocolate-maker, not the planet) when she heard the radio advert that would change her life: “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary”. Eighteen months of testing and intensive training later, The Girl from Mars finally blasted off for eight days of in space.
Helen explores the human side of her story, focusing on the months leading up to the mission and the obstacles she faced, both physically and emotionally, as she was launched into the media spotlight. Far more than just a story about space, Helen is about juggling personal ambition with family dynamics, and about the lengths you need to go to find your place in the world.
Howland’s writing is strong, balancing humour with pathos, and the production is well directed by Taylor, making excellent use of the traverse staging. Although a lot of the main action takes place towards the centre of the room, there are almost always actors positioned throughout the space, ensuring that the audience feels connected to the action regardless of where they are sitting.
Violet Verigo and Hannah Marie Davis work well together as Helen and her sister Sharron while Donna Coulling and Ben Gardner Gray are very entertaining as their parents (especially during a series of phone calls from pay phones as they make their way down the M1 for their first ever trip to London). The six-strong cast is completed by Lea Anderson as “Woman” (who feels a little underused compared to the others) and George Seymour as “Man”. Seymour is really excellent in this role, playing a series of largely smarmy and cocky men, including Helen’s self-obsessed city worker boyfriend.
It’s a very enjoyable hour of theatre which is both enlightening and entertaining, and it could easily be a longer piece. Like its namesake, Helen has battled the odds to finally make it onto a live stage and we hope that this won’t be its final mission. If you’re at VAULT Festival tonight, make sure you head to the Cavern as Helen blasts off for the final time.
Helen plays at VAULT Festival from 14 to 17 March 2023. We received a complimentary press ticket to the performance on 15 March.