Best-known for playing Germaine in Channel 4’s brilliant comedy Raised By Wolves, Helen Monks is keeping busy this August by starring in not one, but two Fringe shows.
As well as returning to E15, a play about social housing, this year sees Helen bring a brand new play which she has written called Dolly Wants To Die to the Fringe.
Dolly is a potty-mouth, chain-smoking toy doll. She can sing, dance, throw a tea party like a bitch – literally, anything! Except, that is, the one thing she wants most in the world. Dolly can’t die.
A victim of Cameron's Britain, this doll is done playing nice. Presenting first world problems in an imaginary world this offbeat comedy, through music, storytelling and stand-up explores the peril of entering adulthood and the absolute ball ache of being alive.
Here’s what she had to say about playing a doll, brexit and the future of Raised By Wolves...
What is Dolly Wants To Die all about?
I would describe it as Toy Story for the Prozac generation. It’s set in a kids bedroom and a it’s a two-hander between me as a doll and a giant teddy bear.
It’s a comedy, but it stemmed from the fact that every single one of my friends around me at some point over the last couple of years has had some kind of nervous breakdown. Sometimes comically and sometimes really seriously, and I just realised that we’re living in an epidemic where this generation are really struggling and that can’t be a coincidence.
It’s been quite interesting because I wrote the play and then obviously the world went to shit and so it’s been interesting trying to feed that in to the play as well – the disillusionment young people have had with the EU referendum and feeling left behind and outside of politics. They feel like they haven’t really got a voice or a space and that’s metaphorically true in terms of the political system, but also physically.
There aren’t enough homes for people, most of my friends around 23 are living at home with their parents and when people are lucky enough to get a job, it’s normally an unoaid internship. I think you can really really tell things are difficult when it’s affecting not just the working classes, but everybody.
I’ve got another play up at the Fringe called E15 and that’s about the housing crisis. It’s very much about people who are on benefits and have social housing. Social housing is basically non-existent now, especially in London. Over 1,000 families a week are being moved out of London because everything’s becoming privatised.
So there’s that side to it, but also there are people going to university thinking that that will give them social mobility like it did for the generation above us, but then you find that actually it just makes us have a crippling student debt and no more job opportunities than if they’d not gone.
Whenever I start talking about it, I always get incredibly serious. But it is a comedy, I promise! (Laughs)
Have you had to change much of Dolly Wants To Die since the Brexit vote?
Surprisingly no actually, there are a few Theresa May lines and nods to it.
The vote of leaving the European Union, although I’m so upset by it personally, because I think it’s the wrong decision, I’ve not been massively surprised by it.
It feels like a consequence of everything that had already happened. We already created this system where people feel really disenfranchised.
So it’s definitely a very topical play. There was stuff to do with trident in the very original draft which I wrote last year and then it just became so dated, no one was talking about trident, think about all the other things that are happening.
And then over the last week or so I’ve been like “Stop bringing trident back! Stop it. Talk about it after the Fringe!”
Who is Dolly? How did she come about?
It started off as a stand-up that I was doing on the circuit, but then I realised that an hour-long play about a 23-year-old talking about how disappointing being a 23-year-old is, will feel indulgent. You don’t have that separation from it.
If it’s a doll, it immediately alienates and is funny because it’s quite weird to have a doll on anti-anxiety meds and downing lots of vodka. But also, I just realised that when it started out it was this really angry thing and actually now it’s about trying to find hope and humanity, and who better to view humans than someone who’s not a human?
The reason Dolly wants to die is that I’ve tried to explore the idea that humans have this amazing ability to survive, in a way that maybe someone looking in wouldn’t quite comprehend because if you look on paper everything’s awful. We definitely should have killed each other out by now.
It’s so silly, and I’ve managed to take this out of the play, but in the very first draft, the moral of the play was “Oh well. We can go and eat a burger and lie in the sunshine” – that’s obviously not a good enough reason to feel happy when everything else is awful.
I also feel there’s something amazing in our ability to enjoy the small things in every day, even if we can’t control the big things. That’s why I thought it was quite important to be a doll because it’s a bit wanky for humans to observe that about themselves. Whereas she can just not quite comprehend it.
Are you enjoying playing a doll?
Yeah I am! I love it, and I mostly love it because the other guy in the show is in this massive enormous bear costume so I get to cuddle him all day long, it’s a lot of fun!
It’s quite a physical play because Dolly tries to kill herself quite a lot throughout the play and rope the audience into helping her kill herself.
Mr Bear doesn’t have any lines and it’s really funny because I’ve got this most amazing actor, who’s just graduated from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, workshops at the RSC, so talented – and I feel really bad that I’ve just put him in this costume and he’s not got any lines!
But actually, it’s why he’s the best person for the job, because he’s really really good at making that work without any lines or anything. He upstages me really! I’m a bit annoyed about it (laughs).
How long has the show taken to put together?
I started working on it around Christmas. The theatre company I work with are called Lung and we too E15, my other show, up to the Fringe last year and we were always going to take that up again, but I had this up my sleeve.
I think I wrote it not really thinking anything would happen with it around last Fringe actually, because the Fringe brings out the root of everybody. So if you’re happy it brings out your most happy side, and if you’re having some kind of emotional crisis then that very much bubbles to the surface.
So a lot of the inspiration came from a lot of the people I met at the Fringe, so I probably started writing it around then but not necessarily knowing I was going to take it up. But then Lung were dabbling with the idea of taking another play so I went “Hey! Why don’t we do this one?” and they did!
Matt Woodhead who runs the theatre company has been really involved in helping reshape it and redraft it, so it’s been really great and I’ve had a really amazing team behind me.
How have the previews been going?
Yeah, really really good. It depends on the audience, but if you’re talking about something that taps into a thing that everybody gets, which we’ve really tried to do, the audience walks away feeling like they understood and felt a part of it.
The whole point of it is to say to the audience, and to quote David Cameron “We’re all in this together”. And people laugh which is always a good thing!
That’s always the scary thing about when you do something funny, you immediately know if it’s good or not and when it’s not that can just be the most awful soul-destroying thing.
People have been laughing, so fingers crossed the laughing won’t stop up at the Fringe.
Both Dolly Wants To Die and E15 are very topical shows. What is it about the Fringe that makes it a perfect place to put those plays on?
I always see the Fringe as an activist thing in itself – you find a community of people who are often quite like-minded but also enjoy challenging each other and that’s what theatre is as well.
E15 is activism meets theatre, it is bigger than just a play. It’s trying to galvanise people to be active and I guess where better to find bleeding heart liberals than the Fringe?! (Laughs)
Also, there’s nowhere like it in the world. I mean I always get grumpy because it’s becoming more and more capitalist, big venues raking lots of cash, but hopefully we can claw it back, but it does still just provide a space.
I’ve said this in interviews before, but it’s so true, what I find amazing is going through the programme and looking for what I think will be the weirdest/most terrible thing I’ve ever seen, and thinking that there’s this space for somebody to do that and put that on.
The Fringe feels like every person has a voice and obviously I really do mean it when I say increasingly less so because the costs of it and the way the venues are run, but it just felt like the perfect place to platform a voice that is really marginalised.
And that’s what our theatre company tries to do, platform marginalised voices… and then we did Dolly Wants to Die about a doll! But actually, perhaps it’s the most marginalised voice of all because she can’t speak in real life. (Laughs)
I have to talk about Raised By Wolves which I absolutely love. Is it looking good for a third series?
We’re still waiting. We don’t know. All of the storylines have been blocked and all the episodes have been planned and I have read them and I am very very excited!
But also, I wish I hadn’t in case it doesn’t happen. My plan is that whatever happens, we’ll make a series three. Even if it’s a YouTube series on my camera phone, I’m absolutely determined. Or we could just release the scripts to the world and people could enact their own Raised By Wolves and send them in.
Were you surprised by how well received Raised By Wolves has been?
Yeah, it was one of these weird things where there was something about Raised By Wolves where I think we knew we were sitting on gold dust a little bit.
I’ve got to say, Caz Moran, who’s Caitlin Moran but less loud about is just the most extraordinary talented genius, she’s my complete inspiration. And she’s been helping out a bit with Dolly actually.
I wrote myself a letter when I made the pilot and when I first read series one and when I first read series two because when you make telly, you do a take 4 billion times and by the end of the day you’ve done 5 minutes of the episode and you lose sight of what is funny and what is just repetition so you become a bit hysterical.
So the letter would say things like “remember your reaction when you first read the script” which is having to put the script down and walk around the room because I was laughing so much.
I read quite a lot of scripts that I know how they imagine it to be funny, and you can work out how to make it funny but it’s really rare when you read something and wee yourself laughing.
Also, I think it was really clear when I read it that of course, there’s this massive gap in the market where you never get working class voices on the telly that speak this intelligently.
I’ve been so lucky to play Germaine because there are so few characters like her, or like Della who’s a single mum who’s not moaning, not struggling but really owning life.
Are you happy (for now) to be known as “the one that played Germaine in Raised By Wolves”?
Oh my god, I love that! I remember someone asking me if I’m ever worried that that will be it and you’ll be typecast, but I just couldn’t ask for anything better. It feels like that should be the end point rather than the beginning point.
If that’s the only thing I ever do in my life I’d be so proud of it.
Will you be watching the US remake?
Oh 100%. Yeah, I’m going to be emailing them suggestions.
It makes total sense, I don’t know how they’re going to end up doing it, but home-schooling is such a big thing in America so it makes a lot of sense to take it over there.
I often don’t understand American remakes, but with this one I totally get it.
And finally, how would you sum up the show in just five words?
Funny. Bleak. Toy Story. Discombobulating.