Helen Rutter won the Buxton Fringe Award for Best Female Actor last year, for her performance in the one-woman play Human. This year she’s back in another self-penned show, where she spends almost the entire performance stuck up the eponymous ladder. As she awaits rescue, she recounts her experiences and re-evaluates her life.
Helen’s husband has gone out with the kids, having failed to shift the ladders, even though she’d asked him to. They're complicated builders' models, and while trying to work out how to fold them, Helen (the character shares the actor’s name) gets her finger caught in the mechanism. It’s a neat set-up for a short play, and a hell of an acting challenge for Rutter, stuck on the ladder with her hand clamped to the top.
It's a good job that Helen Rutter is an excellent actor. The conceit may be clever, but it is limiting: her range of movement is extremely restricted, with three out of four limbs virtually fixed in place. To stay in that position, while retaining our full attention, requires charisma and real talent.
The play is strongest in its acute observations on the lives of women, and the overwhelmingly female audience lapped it up. Rutter is self-deprecating and down-to earth, capturing the doubts and fears of someone who wants to be at home with her children as they grow up, while losing confidence about a future back in the workplace. She is also very funny; there are some great punchlines and her comic timing is spot on.
However, while being stuck up a ladder gives Helen scope to reassess her life, there are no great revelations or drama. Rutter is very true-to-life and believable herself, yet the characters that surround her in the story appear to be little more than stereotypes. For example, her useless husband feels like a trite representation – drawn from a one-dimensional and slightly patronising world where all men are nincompoops around the home.
There could have been a really interesting dramatic alternative here, if Helen realised that being trapped in pain due to her husband’s thoughtlessness was reflective of their relationship, and decided to do something about it. That's not the way it pans out.
As it is, The Ladder feels too much like an episode from a sitcom, but a superior sitcom all the same. It's another fabulous performance from Helen Rutter, which went down a storm on the night I attended – but a little more bravery with the script would pay dividends.