Interview: Helen Monks – 'theatre gives you this massive freedom. All you need is the venue, then you can do anything you want'
Raised by Wolves star is in town to get political on stage, and she doesn’t know whether to get angry or have a laugh
Channel 4 sitcom Raised by Wolves made her a familiar TV face, but if Helen Monks didn’t exist, Caitlin Moran would have had to invent her. Happily, Monks saved her the bother. The story goes that as a University of Sheffield undergraduate, Monks approached Moran at a book signing session and suggested she should cast her in the writer’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, Raised by Wolves. Monks looked so much the part that she landed the role of excitable teenager Germaine, a fictionalised version of Moran herself, in two highly acclaimed and highly entertaining series. For Monks, it was the part she was born to play.
‘I went to this massive comprehensive girls school in Birmingham where we all acted exactly how the characters act on the telly,’ she says. ‘It always baffles me when that is seen as outsidery when, for most people, it is normal life. Particularly from the teenage angle where a girl who is as horny as a boy is regarded as different. But girls masturbating: that’s just normal.’
She brought a similar flavour of authentic youth to the part of Shakespeare’s daughter in Ben Elton’s recent all-celebrity sitcom Upstart Crow, but what’s animating her today is her annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘Theatre gives you this massive freedom,’ she says. ‘All you need is the venue, then you can do anything you want. That’s what’s amazing about the Fringe. What I really love is scouting out the most bonkers stuff. Even when it’s rubbish, how amazing it is that human beings have the freedom to express themselves, make political points, make theatre about their own histories and their own stories.’
This time, she’s here with two shows. First, there’s E15, a verbatim drama she co-wrote about the women who fought back against Newham Council’s plan to force them out of their homes. On its debut last year, The List praised its ‘ferocious political focus’. ‘We felt it was important to do something that was political and of our time,’ Monks says. ‘We’ve been campaigning with the mums for the last year and a half. And for us, the politics came first.’
And then there is her new one-woman comedy Dolly Wants to Die, also produced by Sheffield’s Lung Theatre, about a ‘potty-mouth, chain-smoking toy doll’ who’s had it up to here with Cameron’s Britain. She’s been road-testing sections in stand-up comedy clubs, shaping the material based on what people find funny, but it promises to be an equal mix of vitriol and laughs.
‘Originally, it was quite angry,’ she says. ‘I feel like this is the worst generation to be young since the war. I’m surrounded by friends who are so unwell in terms of their mental health and I do feel a lot of that is circumstantial because we’re so poor and there are so few opportunities. But the more angry I got, the more people would laugh. So the show is more like a collective experience to all laugh at how awful everything is.’
Monks insists that the comedy in Dolly comes from a character getting so bogged down in everything that’s wrong with the world. ‘You’ve got to choose your battles and it’s very easy when you’re young and self-employed to be self-righteous about everything, but it’s about trying to find the hope and the places you can change things. The hope is to find a way of understanding it, regaining control and making people feel empowered.’
Dolly Wants to Die, Underbelly, Cowgate, 6–28 Aug (not 17), 4.10pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £6; E15, Northern Stage at Summerhall, Summerhall, 8–27 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 6.30pm, £11 (£9). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £9.