A Brief History of Helen of Troy
ATC and the Drum Theatre, Plymouth
The title gives away little about this contemporary American black comedy. Only in the loosest sense is Helen of Troy present in the tale of unhappy, adolescent Charlotte.
This play in four acts is influenced by the face that launched a thousand ships to the extent that Charlotte is given a school assignment on the subject and her life - or more accurately her late mother's - has similarities to that of the Greek paragon.
Charlotte is a fifteen year old ugly duckling whose memorably beautiful mother, meaningfully called Helen, has just died. In a series of short scenes, she has one-on-one encounters with family, friends and acquaintances that border on the surreal but paint a picture of a shy girl coming to terms with life - and death.
Her father played by John Sharian, is almost monosyllabic so that words like OK seem like a mouthful. He cares for his daughter but struggles to understand or communicate with her. He is not alone, since the audience have to make conscious decisions as to whether some scenes are taking place in her head or her life.
Her best (and only) friend Heather, wittily portrayed by Jaimi Barbakoff, is so totally an airhead valley girl who uses her friend like an ego-boosting doll. Even worse, insecure Franklin (Ryan Sampson) is a geeky boy who has learned to ignore Charlotte, and Freddie (Christian Brassington) is a wet dream of a quarterback who loves himself to distraction.
The funniest moments in a very funny play come in scenes involving Gary the careers teacher. In two scenes, the tables are reversed. First, Charlotte goes hilariously overboard on her sole career choice of porn star while Gary gulps and dissembles. Next time around, she announces that she wants to be a nun while he tells her that she should be a porn star and that, anyway, there is little difference between the two.
Charlotte is a mixed-up girl who longs to trade teen acne for her mother's peerless beauty. In true 21st Century style, she tries to buy the admiration that the beautiful get genuinely. Her method is a combination of loud attention-seeking and no commitment sex.
The play achieves no real resolution, although eventually father and daughter begin to communicate properly. It is held together by an excellent performance from very promising RADA graduate Andrea Riseborough who is making her professional stage debut.
Under Gordon Anderson's direction, she allows the strange teen to become surprisingly sympathetic and assists in making this lively play show what life is like for an ugly, unhappy teenager today.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher