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Review: Helping Hannah

Part of The University of Manchester Drama Society’s MIFTAs season, this is a charming, coming of age drama

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They say our school years are the best of our lives and that we should enjoy them while we can. Of course this is sometimes simply untrue and while being a teenager has its positives, it can also offer up some of the most emotionally challenging  and draining moments of our lives while we come to terms with who we are. Helping Hannah, a new play by Cait O’ Sullivan and part of the University of Manchester Drama Society’s MIFTA season, employs this second version of teenage life through focusing on the struggles of its two main characters. The brash, volatile Jen and extremely introverted Hannah become unlikely friends after attending a group therapy session together, and while it remains unclear for much of the play as to why Jen’s parents have sent her there, Hannah’s reasoning is made instantly evident. Hannah suffers from quite severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), so much so that she constantly carries with her all the sink and bath plugs from her home, to ensure that it won’t flood in her absence. OCD is a sensitive issue that could have been handled badly, but in fact its handling was one of the biggest strength’s of the play. Ellie Tivey excels in the title role as she strikes the perfect balance between calm reasoning and utter distress in her portrayal of what it is like to live with the condition. Tivey plays the role with reserved precision, but it was clear that she was ready to explode in a fit of angst at any opportunity; like the scene in which Jen’s friend Becca accidentally spills red wine onto Hannah’s skin.

Scenes such as this, which involve Becca’s whole friendship group, were certainly some of the snappiest and most comic in the play. Grace Bridgewater’s character of Jen, Eliana Ostro’s Becca, Christian Hooper’s Charlie, Iona Purvis’ Jules and Sam Roberts’ Dom were all well played and you really got the sense that these were real teenagers talking about the types of inconsequential things that friendship groups at school do and playing party games like ‘would you rather?’ Part of this was thanks to Cait O’Sullivan’s strong script, but Eliana Ostro as the loud and annoying Becca and Christian Hooper’s turn as the loveable but rather hapless Charlie also provided great moments of individual comedy. I must admit however I was less convinced regarding the chemistry of the two supposed couples in the play; Jules and Dom, and Jen and Charlie. It wasn’t believable that either of these couples had a romantic connection, however in the case of Jen and Charlie there was to be a reason for this.

Throughout the play we see Jen having repeated one on one therapy sessions with Dr Philomena, never knowing the reason why, other than that her parents insisted she have them. However as Jen’s relationship with Hannah develops, she kisses her and it is revealed that these ‘therapy’ sessions forced on Jen by her parents, are to supposedly cure her of her apparent homosexuality. This is a twist that I did not anticipate, so O’Sullivan must be congratulated for the way it was built up in her writing and Grace Bridgewater played Jen well as an empowered young woman coming to terms with her sexuality. Jen’s argument with Dr Philomena, excellently acted by Flora Barker, is evidence of this when Jen discovers that Dr Philomena knew why her parents sent her there and still accepted her as a client. Barker comes across really convincingly as someone who is cold, cutting and someone who cares more about her own finances than the health of her patients. Bridgewater is equally strong at standing up for herself, and poses a thought provoking concluding assessment that it is her own parents and Dr Philomena who need ‘helping’, not herself and Hannah.

Ultimately, while the play’s climax and twist is rather farfetched, it is carried through by strong performances and dialogue which prevents the play from slipping into melodrama. This perhaps is indicative of the piece as a whole, because Helping Hannah is a very good play but not a great one. One criticism would be that the seating had been arranged on three sides, but when sitting at the side it was clear that the show had been directed to face the front, while the lack of cover to the backstage came across as somewhat unprofessional. It certainly has its limitations and there is nothing particularly ground breaking about it, however Helping Hannah is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre with a good script from a promising writer in O’Sullivan. If she ever decided to perform the piece again, I for one would definitely be in attendance.

Helping Hannah is part of the University of Manchester Drama Society’s MIFTA season of plays and is playing at the Council Chambers in the Students’ Union from the 4th to the 6th of March.