Friday, 19 August 2016

Helen Monks - Raised By Wolves, Dolly Wants to Die and E15

The story of how Helen Monks ended up playing a fictional version of a teenage Caitlin Moran in TV sit-com Raised By Wolves is pretty well known by now. It's the one about how student fan-girl Monks went to a book-signing by the best selling author of How To Be A Woman, whose journalistic career began aged sixteen after winning a newspaper competition. During the event Moran let slip that she was writing a semi autobiographical show with her sister Caroline, and when she went up to get her book signed, Monks suggested that she could play her.

Being an all round good sort who understands the power of being precocious more than most, Moran took Monks' email address. The next thing she knew, Monks was auditioning for Raised By Wolves sporting a fat suit borrowed from her brother. Moran had googled the twenty-three year old, and, still only in her second year at Sheffield University, was cast as the uber excitable Germaine, hormonal eldest daughter of the housing estate schooled Garry clan.

Now with two series of Raised By Wolves under her belt, Monks is already regarded by some to be the funniest woman on television. Such acclaim was sealed with a regular role as William Shakespeare's sulky daughter Susanna in Ben Elton's period sit-com, Upstart Crow.

Before any of this, Monks had already become involved with Lung, a grassroots theatre company focussed largely on politically engaged verbatim theatre. The company's artistic director Matt Woodhead has overseen plays including Chilcott, based on interviews with veterans of the 2003 Iraqi war as well as refugees, ministers and families of soldiers killed in action. Lung also produced The 56, which was drawn from testimonies of survivors of the 1985 Bradford football ground fire.

This year, Monks takes part in two Lung productions in Edinburgh. As co-writer of E15, Monks and Lung tell the story of twenty nine single mothers living in sheltered accommodation who took on their local council in Newham after attempts to gentrify the area saw them issued with eviction notices.

In Dolly Wants To Die, meanwhile, Monks will appear in her own play as a nihilistic potty-mouthed doll with suicidal tendencies.

“I wrote it because I'm at the stage of life where I realise that pretty much everyone around me is having some kind of existential crisis,” twenty-three year old Monks says of Dolly Wants To Die. “I honestly don't think I don't know anyone who isn't having one. My generation is the first generation that are poorer than our parents in terms of job insecurity and a lack of social mobility and everything else, and that affects the middle classes as well as the working classes. You can see people being pushed into poverty.”

In response to this, Monks started off writing a deeply serious political play, “but then I did a reading of it, and everybody laughed. I was massively offended at first, but then I started using phrases like 'we're all in it together' ironically, and what I've ended up with is a grown up Toy Story for the Prozac generation.”

Delivered in Monks' Brummy accent, such soundbite savvy could have come straight from Germaine's mouth, as could the doll's eye view angst writ large.

“It feels very prescient these last few weeks,” Monks says, taking stock of a post Brexit climate. “There's this climate of complete uncertainty, which totally contradicts what we were promised as children when our parents lived in this sage of social mobility that just doesn't exist anymore. All of that is really frightening, and as soon as I start talking about it I become really passionate about all these issues, but the play is a two-hander with me and this giant DJing bear.”

E15 was pulled together from 175 hours of interviews that chart the story of the Focus E15 Campaign, which was taken all the way to the Houses of Parliament in the the women's determination not to be marginalised.

“The campaign was an attempt to get housing back on the political agenda,” Monks explains. “There was a massive demonstration, and we interviewed everyone, from housing campaigners to the shadow cabinet, and this amazing group of revolutionary women really helped us shape the show. They came up to see us, and were jumping in with ideas, so it felt like a real piece of activist theatre. It's the only piece of theatre I've worked on that's felt so of the moment, and which seemed to blur between theatre and real life.”

Monks reels off statistics discovered during the making of the play about the extent of homelessness in London and elsewhere caused by encroaching gentrification.

“Social housing is being bought up by private investors, and people are being moved out block by block because councils don't want to subsidise social housing,” she says. “As soon as you think about it, you start noticing these huge amounts of houses lying empty, but I never fully understood it till I met the women, and had my eyes opened to the shocking social cleansing that's going on.”

With both her parents working in the arts, Monks was drawn to acting from an early age. Like Moran, she won writing competitions, “but I never thought I'd end up doing it properly. I still think at the back of my mind I'm going to go off and get a proper job at some point.”

Raised By Wolves, Upstart Crow and Lung have put such a search on hold.

“I really was a super fan-girl of Caitlin Moran,” she says. “Germaine has this lust for life, and is slightly more confident about things than she's capable of. In terms of research I think as well that I had a huge advantage, because Caitlin is really open, and tells you everything about her life, like what year she had cystitis.

“Raised By Wolves is so honest as well about what it's like being a fifteen year old girl. I love The Inbetweeners, but the women in it aren't real. In real life, a fifteen year old girl is just as horny, and just as entertaining. It has this very real picture as well of what it's like living on a council estate, which is normal for a lot people. It's not some drug ravaged hellhole like its sometimes presented, and can be boring and cramped, but is filled with this proper indestructible family love.”

While Upstart Crow has already been re-commissioned for a second series and a Christmas special, a Channel 4 recently announced that a third series of Raised By Wolves won't be forthcoming. Undaunted, Caitlin Moran has announced in a video message that she aims to carry on regardless, presumably with new producers in place.

For Monks, work has already begun on two new verbatim projects for Lung. She declares them both top secret for now, though she reveals that interviews are already ongoing. Beyond that, anything seems possible.

“My dream next is potentially television writing,” Monks says. “It's that classic thing of having these late night conversations with friends about something, and you go away thinking, well, I have to do this now. But honestly, British TV is extraordinary. I roll my eyes at how white, male and middle class it is. My real long term ambition,” she says, channeling the spirit of Germaine once more, “is to get a normal job. Maybe world domination, something like that.”

Dolly Wants To Die, Underbelly until August 28, 4.10-5.10. E15, Summerhall until August 27, 6.30-7.30pm.
www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk
www.summerhall.co.uk

The Herald, August 19th 2016

ends

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