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Helen: Torch By Anu

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
Event: -
Picking up the pieces
A young woman (Nandi Bhebhe) at St Helens Central railway station approaches me and the lady next to me, who I've just met. She wants 10p for the vending machine but she seems to panic and scurries away.

Theatre, ANU Productions, Louise Lowe, drama, St Helens, Heart of Glass, idle women
Nandi Bhebhe. Photo credit: Radka Dolinksa.


We are then approached by a social worker (Niamh McCann). She shows us her lanyard and badge and says she needs us to help find the runaway who is "very vulnerable." She drives us around the side streets of the town.

Theatre, ANU Productions, Louise Lowe, drama, St Helens, Heart of Glass, idle women
Niamh McCann. Photo credit: Radka Dolinksa.


She invites us into a terraced house where the fuse box has tripped. The social worker asks me to go upstairs to a tiny room with a bunk bed, a Katie Price book on the floor and baby clothes on the radiator.

Jade (Sarah Morris) applies cuticle oil to my nails and gradually reveals her history of domestic abuse - triggered by an ex-boyfriend sharing revenge porn online.

Theatre, ANU Productions, Louise Lowe, drama, St Helens, Heart of Glass, idle women
Sarah Morris. Photo credit: Radka Dolinksa.


Back downstairs, the Christmas lights flash and The Power of Love by Frankies Goes to Hollywood battles the tension in the room.

We are ushered into the tiny kitchen and back in time to 1984. Gillian McCarthy turns on a flickering black and white television, next to a placard referring to 'scabs'. We watch the Queen's Christmas broadcast.

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 – 2002) - better known as The Queen Mother - cradles Prince Harry in her arms. Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales discuss Harry's christening with his brother - William.

"Hope you've got your bags packed, love," 'Gillian' says to Diana. "I bet they won't be chopping up their furniture for firewood," she adds, in a reference to St Helens part in the miners' strike 1984 - 85.

Theatre, ANU Productions, Louise Lowe, drama, St Helens, Heart of Glass, idle women
Nandi Bhebhe. Photo credit: Radka Dolinksa


Back in the main room, there is a broken lamp-stand on the floor. We are reacquainted with the runaway from the train station. She twists and turns in what must be reenactments of abuse she has endured. Then she escapes again. "I thought yous' (sic) were watching her," - Niamh McCann chides us.

We are led back down the dark streets by presumably another social worker (Etta Fusi). This must be where we return to the train station?

Theatre, ANU Productions, Louise Lowe, drama, St Helens, Heart of Glass, idle women
Sonia Hughes. Photo credit: Radka Dolinksa.


Instead, we enter the Hippodrome, on Corporation Street, where in the intimate interval-cafe, Etta Fusi tells us that "there is a relief in not telling the truth, because . . . if we did, the whole town could implode."

'Theo' (Sonia Hughes) offers us refreshment (probably not from the boxes of Lyons Tea behind her). She then reads our tea leaves and leaves us with the question "Who do you want to be?"

Myself and the three other members of the audience (or should that be participants) discuss that question; what has just happened in the last hour and a quarter, and how we are getting home.

Torch by was commissioned by the Helen Partnership - "immersive and explosive art experiences focused on women." Heart of Glass, Idle Women and ANU Productions.

It is the result of two years of research between ANU and women from St Helens - "a town with a higher than national average of domestic abuse."

I knew that a traditional theatre experience was the last thing to expect - having previously seen Angel Meadow and On Corporation Street.

I also felt more confident about speaking to the actors (in character) and asking them questions about their backstory. Sarah Morris, as Jade, was compelling and convincing in her responses.

Half of me felt privileged to be let into the lives of these women and half of me was praying I would be able to get out quickly.

Special mention must go not just to director Louise Lowe but to the set and lighting designer - Maree Kearns' and Sinéad Diskin - the sound designer. Both conjured a poetic, waking nightmare - which is at the essence of the ANU productions I have experienced.

Back at St Helens Central, I see a scrawny teenager being ushered into a police van and I wonder what the story is. I'll soon be away from the cold waiting room and platform, glancing at other lives fleetingly, through glass.

Theatre, ANU Productions, Louise Lowe, drama, St Helens, Heart of Glass, idle women
Photo credit: Radka Dolinksa

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Why? Brief Encounters and Immersive Drama in St Helens
When: 19 November – 1 December 2018
Phone: 01744 623290
Where: St Helens Central and other locations
Cost: All tickets £6; £3 concessions (students, senior citizens, unwaged); £4 tickets available to those with a St Helens postcode
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