Helmut’s Helmet: Humour in the Himalayas

Helmut’s Helmet, written by Finbar Todd, directed by Sophie Newnhan and presented by Trinity College, is a brand new and extremely funny Australian play. Set largely in the shadows of the Himalayas, the show revolves around Robbie (Niamh Todd) as she and her best friend Sue (Annie McGinley) jet off to Nepal to join a charity, aiming to do some good. Almost immediately their motives are questioned by charity worker Tanya (Sabine Priestley), who writes Robbie off as just another privileged young woman trying to make herself more interesting at parties. What makes a person good becomes the central question of the play, as Robbie is unwittingly thrown into a series of complex ethical decisions.

F. Todd’s script is very clever, packed tight with jokes. The audience on opening night is full of college students, and the writing plays to this demographic, deftly taking the mickey out of uni life and fine arts degrees. F. Todd’s characters in Helmut’s Helmet originate from around the globe; accents are another frequent source of humour. Miles Kelly plays Helmut, a young German from a wealthy textiles family. Kelly’s accent is outrageous, but all the more hilarious for it, sliding between German, ocker Australian and even Irish! Kelly’s vocal antics are balanced by whole-hearted acting, his strong physicality ensures Helmut largely presents as a humorous caricature of a man.

Jasper Corker also utilises a thick accent in his turn as Constable Stark. His English pronunciation is more convincing than Kelly’s German, but there is still humour in its passionate delivery. Additionally, Corker’s performance (and Todd’s writing) play amusingly into two common tropes; the hapless policeman and the hapless Englishman. Of the eleven characters across the play, Corker’s Constable often seems the least likely to deliver any form of justice, regularly (literally) falling flat on his face.

Robbie and Sue’s relationship dominates the narrative, as the latter helps Robbie overcome both internal and external challenges. N. Todd and McGinley form a formidable acting duo, their rapport appears genuine and natural, whether viciously bickering or consoling one another. The pair have a mountain of dialogue to work through, but Todd navigates her character’s range of emotions with aplomb and McGinley is charismatic whilst maintaining an excellent posh London accent.

Helmut’s Helmet has a large cast, but there is engaging chemistry across the ensemble. Morgan Galea, aptly clad in activewear and hiking boots, plays Stephen, the young Australian boss of a Nepalese charity organisation. Galea exudes Stephen’s confidence and self-righteousness through both posture and poise. Stephen’s rival in charity (an entertaining concept) is Karen Carter, well played by Sophie Goodin. One of two characters from the USA, Goodin imbues Karen (through F. Todd’s writing) with that lovable American cultural obliviousness and self-assurance. Grace Burke plays Pip, the other (but no less diverting) American. Pip is the spaced out manager of Robbie and Sue’s hostel in Nepal, more focused on chakra than occupational health and safety or the responsible service of alcohol. Burke’s accent is superb and her commitment to Pip’s relaxed persona is unwavering.

The show deals with sexual assault; crucially the victim’s ordeal is not minimised. It is not a comprehensive examination of the issue, but that is a lot to ask of a play, importantly the treatment is nuanced and deliberate.

The piece’s strength is its humour; slapstick comedy, witty dialogue and scathing burns combine to keep the audience consistently howling. On occasion, subsequent lines are buried under crowd laughter, but subtle timing adjustments will easily fix that problem. I do feel though that a few of the jokes playing on gay stereotypes are heavy handed, using homosexuality as a mere comedic device.

The clearest issue with the show however is its transitions between scenes. The set pieces and props are magnificent and detailed, clearly demarcating office, hostel room and bar spaces, but the lengthy blackouts between scenes are excruciating. The silence is deafening as (too many) set pieces take fifteen, twenty, thirty seconds to be moved on and off in the dark, erasing all momentum developed immediately prior to the break. The lights slowly come up on the new scene, and the actors do well to restore the energy, but it should never be allowed to drop in the first place. 

A creative decision worth commending is Victoria Hofflin’s sound design. Radio news broadcasts and phone calls are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, crackling just enough to sound authentic whilst remaining largely clear and audible. Perhaps these broadcasts, or simply some radio music, could have been used to somewhat cover the prolonged transitions.

F. Todd’s Helmut’s Helmet is an excellent production; its criticism of voluntourism is well measured and doesn’t miss its mark. Newnhan’s direction is impressive, strikingly utilising the full depth of the stage. Her attention to detail is notable, down to the reactions of onlooking characters in group scenes. Like (almost) all good theatre, the play successfully balances comedy and tragedy, and its willingness to delve into the murky world of ethics deserves credit. 

If you get a chance, this new work is more than worth a look!

 

Hayden Smith
Trinity College Dramatic Society’s production of Helmut’s Helmet ran from 12 – 14 September at The Guild Theatre.