Helmet

Douglas Maxwell

Soho

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

Helmet is a very interesting experiment by Douglas Maxwell who still only in his twenties. He is already beginning to build a big reputation in Scotland and in this play tries to capture all of the excitement of computer gaming on stage. With help from Brian Docherty's sound design and Arts in Motion's excellent big screen graphics, he presents a two-hander set in a down at heel games shop.

His first two plays, which share a similar source, were investigations into the psyches of deeply unhappy adolescent boys. Having hit on a relatively untapped area of contemporary theatre, he continues the line with his hero Roddy the Helmet, a retarded 15 or so year old with a pre-teen mental age.

Maxwell, with the help of top Scottish director, John Tiffany, and also Paines Plough, uses Helmet to show how computer games can be a metaphor for life. This is the world of Dreamcast, the Xbox and, most excitingly, the Gamecube.

Roddy, played by Tommy Mullins, spends all of his spare time in the almost bankrupt games shop run by Sal (Ameet Chana). Each comment and move that the characters make is judged as an achievement that will help someone to gain a life or move towards the next level of play. This could be the result of a sharp put down or a happy memory. Like an older game though, each ladder towards Nirvana has its corresponding snake.

At the start, the disappearance of Sal's wife and his relationships with his family and his most regular customer are the main themes and, while they amuse, they can lack substance. Having said this, the jockeying between this boy, whose peak of ambition is to run an unsuccessful games shop, and the man who already does so can be funny and affectionate.

The clever device of replicating computer games by rewinding and repeating life with improvements is initially innovative and wittily delivered (although to an extent, Caryl Churchill has been there already). Without doubt, howeve,r the finest part of the play is when the innocent hero bares his soul as the game reaches its very dark Level 4. This shows Tommy Mullins to be a very good actor as Roddy relates his tale without understanding fully what it means. In doing so, he changes from irritating, obsessive adolescent to tragic victim and this is is where the play and production team really shine

While Maxwell is clearly talented, this play is not completely successful but after a rather limp start, there is much to commend as the playwright gets into the mind of his sad hero and gives his audience an insight into the thoughts and philosophy of the gamecube generation.

The concept of a virtual reality play is novel and must surely be the start of a trend. This is a development that could well attract a new young audience to theatre and this must be welcome.