Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Maureen Lennon: Helen

By | Published on Friday 12 May 2023

As the mother of a daughter, ‘Helen’ – currently completing a run at London’s Theatre503 – caught my attention as soon as I heard about it. It’s an exploration of a mother/daughter relationship, with a specific focus on their shared grief. 

The play is the work of writer Maureen Lennon and is produced by new north-based theatre company Terrain. I spoke to Maureen about the play and the creative team behind the show, as well as her career and hopes for the future.  

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘Helen’ is about? What story does the play tell?
ML: ‘Helen’ tells the story of a mother and daughter, and their evolving relationship after they lose their husband/father. Spanning forty years, the play explores the joys and traumas, laughs and arguments that shape their bond as they navigate the challenges of life in the aftermath of loss.

It asks us to re-examine our idea of grief, looking at how we carry it with us, how it changes us, but also how we change it as our lives expand and contract. I think it’s a play about love as much as loss.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
ML: ‘Helen’ is about grief and hurt but also about hope. I see it as a bit of a love letter to my mum and mums everywhere.

Because it spans such a big time period it touches on quite a lot of themes, but I think the thing we keep coming back to is how these two women care for and save each other in different ways throughout their lives.

It’s about how women keep on keeping on. How mums and daughters parent each other, understand each other, but also really really frustrate each other.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play? What was it that made you want to explore this topic, these themes?
ML: I started writing ‘Helen’ after a couple of personal losses and experiences with grief. I felt that the magnitude and scope of it as an experience, all its different peaks and valleys, were not really represented in a lot of the things I saw discussing it.

It felt like such an epic emotional landscape woven into the very ordinary fabric of everyday life. I really wanted to write something that reflected this, the matter of fact-ness alongside the breathtaking tragedy of it.

I’m really interested in holding two truths that seem to contradict each other within a story, it feels like a rich seam to dig into.

If you read any of my writing you’ll see that I am also a bit obsessed with mums and daughters. They seem to crop up again and again in my plays – sorry mum! – so I’m sure that also drove me a bit here too.

CM: So there are elements of your own experience that inform the play?
ML: Perhaps more than any other play that I’ve written, ‘Helen’ does feel very personal, although it’s not directly autobiographical in any way. But lots of the things Helen and Becca encounter in their lives are things my life experience has touched on and have stuck with me in different ways.

That wasn’t deliberate but somehow I found it trickling out in the writing. I think perhaps they are experiences that will resonate with a lot of other people as well. I think loneliness, for an example, is something that the play explores and something that many more people experience than we acknowledge.

There’s an idea that young people, or people with families or friends, are never lonely, but I think people can feel deeply lonely at times even when surrounded by people who care about them. That’s definitely an experience of grief that rings true for Becca and Helen.

CM: Have you been involved with this production in an ongoing way – or did you hand over the script and step back?
ML: I have been involved quite a bit in rehearsals and the rest of the production. I was in full time for the first week and then have popped back quite a few times. As a writer, my favourite bit is when you get to start working with the whole team and experiencing everyone else’s brilliant ideas.

I really love rehearsals and – controversially – I quite enjoy tech. I do think you have to be careful that your presence isn’t holding anything back, I really want people to feel empowered to have their own ideas and thoughts about the script.

I’ve been really lucky in this process because me and Tom, the director, already had a friendship and a bit of experience of working together so I was confident he would tell me if I was hanging around too much.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creative team?
ML: I know everyone says this, but I think we’ve got the best team and most gorgeous cast! Tom Bellerby is the director, he used to be the Associate Director at Hull Truck, where we met, before he went to the Donmar to be their Resident Assistant Director.

We’d wanted to work together for a while, and when he and a brilliant Hull producer Sarah Penney formed a new company called Terrain Theatre it felt like the perfect opportunity.

Terrain’s aim is to platform the most exciting northern artists across the country, and the possibility of doing this play with them and Theatre 503, who obviously have such a strong reputation for the best new writing, felt really exciting.

I absolutely love our cast. It’s a play that relies on having brilliant dynamic actors, so we’re really lucky. Jo Mousley plays Helen, she’s an incredible Yorkshire actor who has worked on some really exciting shows in the past, it feels like such a treat to have her saying my words.

Chloe Wade plays Becca, she’s also an amazing Yorkshire performer and it’s been so brilliant to get to know her and see her inhabit Becca.

Our design team is also the dream: Alice Hallifax has done set and costume, which is quite a challenge for a play that spans such a big time span and drops down in so many locations. I think she’s done the impossible and made something really beautiful and versatile.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about you and your career? Did you always want to work in the arts? How did your career begin?
ML: I was always obsessed with reading and stories as a kid, I feel like I pre-empted podcasts because I could not go anywhere without an audio book.

I loved to write but hadn’t really considered it as a career possibility. Like a lot of people I loved the theatre, but didn’t really understand that there were other ways to work in it other than act. I went to Bristol University to study English and Drama and while I was there I started to discover the possibilities of writing plays and slowly knew this was what I wanted to do. 

So, after university I formed a company called Bellow Theatre with a brilliant writer called Tabitha Mortiboy and we started to write things and put them on. I moved back home to Hull in the run up to our 2017 City Of Culture Year and it felt like the perfect time to be an emerging creative, there was lots of buzz and opportunities kicking about and it felt like the timing was just right.

CM: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
ML: In 2018 an incredible Hull company called Middle Child Theatre commissioned me to write my first full length play. It was called ‘Us Against Whatever’, and was a karaoke cabaret responding to the Brexit vote in Hull. It was on in Liverpool and Hull and I’m incredibly proud of it. 

It felt like a really pivotal moment, not only because it was my first big play – and it was performed in big, mid-scale spaces with six actors and was basically a full musical that also happened partly in Polish – but also because of the team of people who worked on it.

When you feel like you’ve found your people, who really believe in you but who are also going to push you to do your best and most brilliant work, it’s a really intoxicating experience. I really had that on that show. 

Plus, we got to do lots of other really exciting and brilliant things in the process, the British Council sent us to Poland twice, we workshopped it at the National Theatre Studio, and we went on a tour of Liverpool karaoke bars – there are videos of that but I hope they never surface!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
ML: So many! Form is really important to me and I’d really love to keep being given the opportunities to experiment. I’d like to start exploring the world of TV writing, that’s something that feels totally different to me.

Last year I did a huge play for York Theatre Royal, which was for a community cast of nearly a hundred, I’d love to do something like that again. Equally, I feel like I’ve got a couple of really intimate, intense, stories that I want to explore.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
ML: I’m really looking forward to the next few years. I’ve had a few projects that have been cooking for a while but obviously because of COVID a lot of things have been delayed. I think 2024/25 will be really fun. I won’t say too much, but there are lots of plays that I really believe in and have a bit of my heart in… and mums too of course, always mums. 

‘Helen’ is on at Theatre503 until 27 May, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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