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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Cottesloe)


  Lesley Sharp and Nick Sidi in Harper Regan

I can't go into his head, says the eponymous heroine of Harper Regan, Simon Stephens's subtle, quietly devastating play about the unknowability of humankind and the trust and faith that are nevertheless required by and of the human heart. At once a narrative and emotional picaresque, Stephens's play won't be to all tastes: unusually for London, there were reports of walkouts during previews. But for those attuned to its singular, genuinely haunting wavelength, the play will likely be one of the high points of this still-young theatrical year, and it is served up in a surpassingly empathic production from the director Marianne Elliott, who brings the same muscular attention to Stephens's deliberately sequential tale as she did last year to the fire-and-ice polemics of Shaw's Saint Joan.

The play chronicles a woman in need of escape. Harper Regan's father, severely diabetic, is dying up north in the part of England from which Harper is from, while on the home front her stay-at-home architect husband seems unable to do much about the family's mounting interest payments - and it takes some while before we in fact discover just what it is that is keeping him off work. Harper's own workplace, meanwhile, is ruled by a decidedly weird boss who talks of watching a measured amount of porn and won't give her the time off she has requested. Small wonder that when Harper decides to go anyhow that she has stored up a sizable degree of violence, which in turn precipitates a first-act finale that seems both shocking and entirely right.

Stephens writes with genuine feeling about the intimacy occasionally achieved with strangers, not to mention the way in which those whom we think we understand best can suddenly appear entirely alien to us. I'd know, wouldn't I, don't you think?, Lesley Sharp's Harper asks her mother with regard to the episode that has led her husband to his current, tacitly parlous state. But Stephens can't answer that question any more than Lucinda Coxon in her concurrent Cottesloe Theatre entry, Happy Now?, resolves the question mark that proves a vital part of her title. In the fragile but ultimately forgiving landscape of this play, feelings are more immediate than facts, as suggested by the lamentation from English folk singer Nancy Elizabeth, How Can I Stop My Tears Falling?, with which Elliott punctuates an eleventh-hour scene change. The couple's gum-chewing, leather-clad daughter, for instance, is forever announcing her state of mind. But what does she really know of her parents' lives and ways? Can we ever truly comprehend why people are who and what they are?

It's a playwright's implicit job, of course, to get us as close as possible, which Harper Regan does with compassion and grace. In marked contrast to Stephens's previous, and superb, Motortown, about an English soldier returned from combat in Iraq, this play allows for the prospect that perhaps, just perhaps, even life at its most painful can allow its participants a way to move on. The ending, then, with its cunning thematic talk of smells, affords a vision of the future that feels ripe with possibility but is in no way sentimental. By that point, too, it's difficult to imagine not having been caught up in the unforced radiance of the ever-invaluable Sharp, who embodies that essential paradox of the theater whereby a performer seems to be living, not acting, the role. Those wanting a play that holds a mirror up to the wayward ebb and flow of existence, here it is, and if that mirror seems gently frosted and cracked around the edges, well, even the most lucid of playwrights has to acknowledge that absolute clarity in life is something close to a lie.