When the curtains are drawn

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
'Trouble' is a euphemism often used to soften the blow of a truth too harsh to bear. It is also the name of a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, written by a teacher to help her cope with a mystery illness that put her in an oncology ward. Elaine Williams reports

If there's one thing the past few months have taught primary school teacher Helen Goodway, it is to seize the moment - in a one-woman-show-at-the-Edinburgh-Fringe sort of way. If you've been told you might have cancer, if you've been rushed on to a hospital ward for eight days and had people die next to you when all you expected was a check-up, you might as well go full out for what remains, and live every passing second.

That's how 52-year-old Ms Goodway sees it. Her spell on the oncology ward at Airedale district hospital, Keighley, West Yorkshire, propelled her on to the stage - to share the horror of it certainly, but also to face the possibility of death creatively, under the spotlight, even. When she was in hospital, the staff used the euphemism "trouble on the ward" when they talked about death. She has called her show Trouble.

The last time Ms Goodway was on stage, she was 10, playing a minor role in The Tempest at her Tunbridge Wells prep school. But she is not deterred by inexperience, and appears awesomely composed about the prospect of performing a 50-minute monologue, during which she strips to the skin, every day in the Pleasance, one of the Fringe's chief venues. "Constantly living with the question 'what if I die soon?' has spurred me not to waste a moment. I chose to strip as a metaphor for the feeling of being exposed to death, the feeling of powerlessness," she says.

She is a language development teacher at Margaret McMillan primary in inner-city Bradford, and has always prided herself on her storytelling skills. She has a rich and resonant voice, sexy and slightly throaty. Although she has attended the Fringe as a punter, she never imagined she would perform as a storyteller to adults. Teaching, she believes, has been her best preparation. Children can be merciless critics.

Helen Goodway is many things, funny in an ironic and slightly risque fashion, self-mocking, questioning. She has suffered bouts of serious illness throughout her adult life, but nothing prepared her for her latest encounter with the National Health Service. Her health took a downturn last October with the onset of chronic diarrhoea. Eventually, in January, a doctor referred her for a colonoscopy and then admitted her to hospital for more tests. "I had lost two-and-a-half stone by then. I knew they were looking for something like Crohn's disease, coeliac disease or cancer. Still, I was told it was just for the day." Over the following eight days, she underwent two endoscopies (the second because the first was performed incorrectly), took an alarming range of drugs and saw five people die on the ward.

As she says in her script: "Imagine, you go in for the day. You find yourself - three feet at most, with just a curtain between you - right next to a dying person." A young woman in a neighbouring bed died soon after having sat all day, immobile, alone, with staring eyes. Ms Goodway says: "I wanted to go over and touch her for comfort, to say I was there, with her. But I didn't, and she died. That made me think you should never hesitate in life. You might be too late. If you want to do something you should do it."

She has sympathy, too, for the hospital staff, who work under huge pressure - one night there was only one qualified nurse on duty, and she was hopelessly overloaded - mingled with fury at the dehumanising face of the institution. She formed a resistance group with some of the other patients, battling to keep the bed curtains closed in the morning. She sent a friend to find the sexiest nightie in town - a strappy, slinky black number that appears in the show. It stopped the consultant in his tracks, an event she describes on stage:

"Just stares for what felt like ages, then says, 'Are you the in-patient?' 'Yes.' 'People don't normally wear clothes like that when they're in hospital.' Well, I ask you! I said, witheringly: 'I wouldn't dream of wearing what people normally wear in hospital!'" Helen Goodway was discharged from hospital with coeliac and Crohn's diseases eliminated, but not cancer. Hefty doses of an aggressive anti-inflammatory drug left her feeling weak and sick. Traumatised and unable to sleep properly, she got up in the early hours a few days after leaving hospital and recorded her feelings and experiences on the oncology ward on tape. But she didn't stop there. Her daughter, a stage manager, had worked for Fat Bloke Productions at the Edinburgh Fringe the previous year. The company was fascinated by the honesty and the black humour of the piece, and asked her to work up a stage script in the form of poems and diary entries, one of about 15 shows the company is taking to the Fringe this year.

In June, she was told her illness was probably caused by a viral infection attacking the lymph in her bowel. She is not certain that she has avoided cancer. She has been working three days a week at Margaret McMillan while rehearsing alone in the library theatre in Keighley, her home town, pacing herself, sleeping lots, but confident of the effect she wishes to achieve.

"I want to convey the sense of complete powerlessness you feel when you're at the mercy of disease and the health system," she says. "I also want people to face up to the death that awaits us all, that could be just around the corner, and to see that in a positive sense; to seize every opportunity that arises."

'Trouble' by Helen Goodway, The Pleasance, Edinburgh Festival venue 33, 1pm, August 1-27 (not 6 or 20). Tickets: 0131 556 6550.Edinburgh highlights in Artbeat and on www.tes.co.uk from next week

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