The Haunting of Helena Blunden

The play that you are about to see was based on a true story

It is a fact beloved of biographers and historical novelists that speaking ill of the dead might be bad form but it’s not legally actionable. The dead can’t sue for defamation of character. Lucky for Bernie McGill and Paul Boyd, since the eponymous character in the Big Telly production of The Haunting of Helena Blunden leads a far racier life than the Belfast ghost of the same name who inspired the play.

‘Yellabelly, yellabelly, lost her knickers in the cellar.’

Throwing in a bit of sex, violence and a hint of droit du seigneur, McGill’s script takes a hoary old ghost story – a Helena Blunden fell to her death in a linen mill in the Markets in 1912 – in an unexpected direction and turns it into something quite clever.

In this version Helena was killed in the linen mill during the Belfast Blitz. No one knows why she was there at night instead of at home or in a bomb shelter.

After decades haunting the place where she died, her peace is disturbed by two visitors – Susan, the bolshie, Goth granddaughter of the mill owner and Margaret, a confused old woman who might, or might not, have known the living Helena. When Susan’s father comes looking for her all four, three living and one dead, end up trapped inside the mill. If they want to get out they will have to unravel what happened to Helena so long ago.

It sounds simple enough, but McGill’s writing spins the story in circles, distracting with details every time the truth threatens to be revealed. Like a game of pass-the-parcel the characters pick up and drop each other’s themes, sometimes revealing something but more often obfuscating it. Everyone is an unreliable narrator, favouring the version of events that doesn’t hurt over those that do.

Somehow it never quite slips over the edge into annoying, always doling out just enough information to move the story along and keep the audience satisfied. The story ties itself neatly together at the end, providing the attentive watcher with a number of satisfying ‘ah ha’ moments. Zoë Seaton’s direction and nicely restrained turns from the actors keep the tension high and the audience engaged as the story winds its way towards a climax.

Roisin Gallagher as Helena delivers a nuanced performance as the dead girl, her initial distraction giving way to frantic, febrile energy as her story comes out, before fading away again. Helena Bereen's Margaret on the other hand is by turns a sweet old dear and, in the words of her creator McGill, a ‘canny oul one’.

Narratively tangled together, echoing each others words and history, the actors also mirror each other physically. At one point a vulpine Helena harries Margaret, the only who seems able to hear her, across the stage. A few moments later and Margaret turns the same sharp, feral glare on Susan. An effective piece of physical theatre.

The effect of the music within the play is uneven. Most of the time the songs, written by Paul Boyd in collaboration with McGill, work well. The mean-spirited 'Yellabelly' catcalls and Helena’s drifting, mournful songs blend into the narrative well and enhance, rather than distract from, the atmosphere.

By comparison Susan’s musical interludes seem random and out of place. Taken on their own merits they are well done – ‘Susan is a Cut Above the Rest’ is powerfully delivered and visually arresting – but don’t make sense within the play. Even in a musical, who sings exposition about their grandfather giving them a key and walking around a creepy old factory as they do it?

That criticism isn’t a deal breaker though. On the whole The Haunting of Helena Blunden is a powerful, clever play that explores the cruelty of class and the frangibility of identity.

To find a showing near you check the Culture Live! listings.

Tammy Moore