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Nick Helm: This Means War!
Published on Wednesday, 15 August 2012
4

4 stars

Pleasance Dome (venue website)
Comedy
1-7, 9-13, 15-22, 24-27 Aug, 5:30pm-6:30pm
Reviewed by Liam McKenna

 Recommended for age 16+ only.

The audience filters in to a darkened room – the University Chaplaincy centre the rest of the year – smoke and classic metal pumping out, for a most unholy of ceremonies. There’s a blackout and sirens, and through the smoke from opposite ends of the room come two toy helicopters on sticks, their searchlights scanning the audience.

From the speakers comes a harsh, rasping voiceover. Standing to attention in the middle of the stage with his back turned is a figure, dressed for war, patiently waiting for his lengthy introduction to finish. Once he’s sure it’s over, he turns and begins the manic chant, right fist pumping. “Helm! Helm! Helm!” After a slight technical issue (he threatens to start the whole introduction again) he has the audience pumping their fists in sync. Not through choice, but through force; through unity. The gist is to get involved or face ridicule. It’s like Nuremburg, but way funnier.

“Helm! Helm! Helm!” He gets the entire front row up. They march in time as he stands on a chair before them, now pumping his left arm. “I’m the only one who’s allowed to change arms,” he says. This is Nick Helm. And he means war.

He eases everyone in with some hard-hitting, gun-slinging jokes (he has six of them) and then cracks on. One poor audience member is picked to play a pivotal role. As Lieutenant, it is audience member Jack’s responsibility to peel potatoes. Into a bucket. In front of everyone. For the whole show.

But who’s really the one being humiliated here, I wonder? (Still probably Jack.)  Last year took so much out of Nick Helm, and he’s doing it again. The show – over-running by nine minutes each night, he apologises – is Helm’s catharsis. It’s his way of mending a broken heart. Something he might not get over…”for months”.

From the off Helm is an irrepressible force; this is a frenzied insight into the inner-workings of a broken man. It’s a breakdown as much as it is a revelation about a new-found appreciation for Sliding Doors (the film, not the thing, but don’t start on the Monty Python bit). Angry rants and songs with his house band are interspersed with softly spoken dramatic poetry, revealing his deepest thoughts on relationships and the spurious connection they have to war. The connection is never really pressed home, except for a quite beautiful moment following a blindfolded reinterpretation of the roulette scene from The Deer Hunter – replacing guns for cans of popular orange-flavoured soft drinks – where Helm displays his vulnerable side.

This is live comedy at its most enthralling. It is raw, anarchic passion, and by the end of it Helm is visibly drained. He’s down on his knees, bare, sweaty chest exposed, his shirt long stripped off (and torn up); he’s being consoled by Jack, the life-support, without whose potato-peeling skills and taste for subtle differences in soft drinks the show may not have been able to go on.

It’s not perfect, but you get the impression it’s not meant to be. Helm covers for the minor technical blips and gets the best out of an audience, at times responsive, at times awkwardly put-upon, to give as well as they get. He covers the whole room, boring into the eyes of anyone not giving their all. He laments the inclusion of little details like the barbed wire that only two people spotted, and the brilliant cape, with the deck-chair underneath and boots strapped to the end, which his mum made. It has to be seen to be admired – and although his point may be lost somewhere in the melee like a soldier with gangrene who’s slowing down the troop, the show goes out on a high, white flags (and tissues) literally waving. We are all the losers, the casualties of war. And we’re all here together.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Edinburgh 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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