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Harper Regan by Simon Stephens at the Tabard Theatre

Harper Regan by Simon StephensWith the mother of a teenager as the title character, a revival of Harper Regan is well-timed in an era when women’s stories continue to push through and take centre stage. True, the ‘Bechdel test’ isn’t passed, as the opening lines are about a pivotal moment in Harper Regan’s (Emmy Happisburgh) life. The critical incident, unusually, ends up being fairly peripheral in the overall framework of the play, which touches on a lot of different aspects and themes despite being concentrated on Harper, who appears in all eleven scenes. The play is not divided into acts, so the interval comes after the end of Scene Six, though the script doesn’t actually specify where an interval ought to go, or even if there should be one at all. (There should be one, by the way.)

Rather than spend a lot of time in the moment of the critical incident, the play instead considers the wider ramifications and consequences of it. Six other actors take on ten characters between them, some of which appear for only a few minutes in a single scene, not to be seen again. Mahesh Aslam (Joseph Langdon), an apprentice to Duncan Woolley (Philip Gill), are both in Scene Eight, for instance, but in no other scenes. Mahesh doesn’t have many lines beyond exchanging pleasantries, but in just a few lines conveys his own experience of loss and bereavement quite profoundly. The audience learns more about Mahesh’s coping strategies in a couple of minutes than it does about Harper’s in a couple of hours.

Almost bizarrely, it is not until Scene Seven that the reasons why Harper was in such a dilemma as to what to do after being denied compassionate leave are made crystal clear. For me, I would attend to urgent family emergencies even at the risk of having my contract of employment terminated. But her husband Seth (Cameron Robertson) cannot find work, and not because of a medical handicap: without giving too much away, he was convicted of something as a result of plea bargaining – this does not, of course, mean he is ‘actually’ guilty, so to speak. In short, without sufficient incomings, Seth and Harper’s daughter Sarah’s (Bea Watson) university ambitions become more difficult to realise.

There are yet more problems, including the icy relations between Harper and her mother Alison (Alma Reising), and a crime against the person that Harper unleased on Mickey Nestor (Marcus McManus), albeit an action not entirely without justification. The play does not resolve, or even pretend to resolve, in full all the various issues that arise in the narrative, and strangest of all is the final scene, in which Seth starts talking about ‘fossil history’ and ‘alternative universes’. Scene Eleven could – and this sounds a tad brutal – be dispensed with altogether without affecting one’s understanding of events in the play in any way.

The set is simple but effective, with the use of four screens which are wheeled about during scene changes. There are no weak links to report in an excellent cast. But – and this is nothing to do with the acting – there are uncomfortable moments, such as Alison’s derogatory remark about “the blacks” and an anti-Semitic line of argument (not quite a rant) from Mickey. Despite all this, there are moments of genuine humour, which are most memorably manifested through the awkwardness between characters when they meet for the first time ever or merely for the first time in years.

There’s a lot to think about afterwards, in a play that does well, despite a rather meandering plot, to examine reactions to inconvenient truths. In the opening scene alone, there’s discussion about amorality in society and the ubiquity of the internet, porn and porn on the internet. Somehow, the production maintains focus on Harper in spite of all sorts of distractions, and all things considered, this is an absorbing, ambitious and nuanced production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

If you go, I don’t think you should come back
On a startlingly bright autumn night in 2006, Harper Regan walks away from her home, her husband and daughter, and keeps walking. She tells nobody that she is going. She tells nobody where she is going. She puts everything she ever built at risk. For two lost days and nights, until it looks as though her entire life might unravel, she doesn’t turn back.

Harper meets several men – by a canal, in a pub, in a hotel room by arrangement. It is a violent, comic, heart-breaking odyssey that strains towards truth but finds acceptance is more important and unveils the dark and secret heart of Harper’s family life.

Cast: EMMY HAPPISBURGH, CAMERON ROBERTSON, PHILIP GILL, BEA WATSON, MARCUS MCMANUS, JOSEPH LANGDON, ALMA REISING.

Harper Regan by Simon Stephens
Tabard Theatre
2 Bath Road
London, W4 1LW
http://tabardtheatre.co.uk/

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