Harper Regan @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Lesley Sharp
Jack Deam
Troy Glasgow
Eamon Boland
Susan Brown
Brian Capron
Jessica Harris
Nitin Kunda
Michael Mears
Jessica Raine
Nick Sidi

directed by
Marianne Elliot
Harper Regan is going on a journey. Her father is ill, maybe dying, and she needs to visit him. Her boss refuses her time off work, but she goes anyway, leaving her job and her family behind and heading to Manchester only to arrive too late.

Simon Stephens’ play is about the distances between people, about alienation within families, within society. It takes a familiar set up, a person leaving their life behind for a short while at least and going on a journey, not exactly of discovery but necessary none the les, and gently reworks it. The play has an episodic quality: on her event-packed two-day trip, Harper encounters a series of characters, an attractive teenager who goes to college with her daughter, an adulterous businessman, an almost unnervingly sweet young nurse, and a vile, anti-Semitic, coke snorting local reporter that she shares a drink with in a tatty pub. This last encounter ends brutally, in a sudden, startling act of violence.

Harper is a woman out of sync with life, out of step with the world. All her reactions are slightly askew; there is a strange slowness to her movements and she talks a lot, too much, filling up silence with words, as if frightened of emptiness, of nothingness, of being alone with her own thoughts. I’m not really in my body, she remarks at one point, and this seems apt.

Lesley Sharp is wonderful in this role, as this emotionally complicated, confused and life-tired woman. It’s a subtle, compelling performance, unshowy yet true; she is the hook that this sometimes frustrating play needs to move forwards. There is one particularly memorable moment towards the end of the play when Harper meets the mother she hasn’t seen in two years and, during the course of an argument about her late father, breaks down and crumples to the floor. Though her back is to the audience throughout this scene, it is possible to feel the pain radiating from her.

The first half of the play is very bitty, it is only in the second half, with a revelation about Harper’s husband, that you start to understand the pressure she’s been under, the impossible position that she’s been in, and, as a result, her actions start to make a little more sense. Indeed the whole tone of the play shifts somewhat with this revelation. But even after this piece of information is made known to us, the play still has a fractured feel, it feels more like a series of scenes than a flowing drama and these are sometimes more satisfying individually then they are as a part of a wider narrative.

In addition to Sharp, the cast are particularly strong especially Jessica Raine as Harper’s plausibly mouthy teenage daughter and Brian Capron as the kindly middle-aged man with whom Harper has a (rather unbelievable, it has to be said) internet-arranged hotel liaison.

Harper and her family live in Uxbridge, a place, as the play frequently reminds us, that is not quite London, a town that exists on the edge. Harper too is a woman on the edge of things, something reinforced by Marianne Elliot’s atmospheric production which has the actors linger on set after their scenes, alone, isolated. In the end there is some sort of shift towards redemption, a glimmer of some sort of hope.

This is a difficult, frustrating play; it is sometimes moving but also, sometimes, implausible and baffling. One thing is clear though, there is a whole world below the initially familiar surface, one full of frightening pits and valleys. The play doesn’t need to take you there to make you feel this, know this. And then of course there’s Lesley Sharp, holding everything together, the constant, solid heart in the middle of things.

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