Review: Harper Regan at Tabard Theatre

A complex, surprising and very wordy play, Harper Regan by Simon Stephens certainly fulfils the remit for newly formed theatre company Contentment Productions, whose aim is to champion exciting female leads, and who bring the play back to London for the first time since its debut at the National Theatre in 2008. Harper (Emmy Happisburgh) has spent her life being defined by others: she’s a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… Then she receives news that her father’s dying and, having been refused compassionate leave by her creepy boss (Philip Gill), decides it’s about time to start making her own decisions for once.

Harper Regan at Tabard Theatre
Photo credit: Rob Youngson

Some of those decisions – like the moment she crushes her wine glass into the neck of Mickey (Marcus McManus), an anti-Semitic journalist who hits on her in the pub, or when she arranges to meet a total stranger in a hotel for sex – seem at first glance random and more than a little questionable. As we learn more about Harper’s history and life back home, however, we begin at least to understand why she needs to make them. The big reveal of the dark secret festering at the heart of her family happens early in Act 2, which places less emphasis on random encounters and instead sees Harper reunited first with her mother (Alma Reising) and later with the husband (Cameron Robertson) and daughter (Bea Watson) she walked out on two days earlier.

The play is split very deliberately into eleven separate scenes, all of which involve a lot of talking on a lot of different topics, covering everything from the Internet to immigration. But amidst all these words, moments of real connection are rare, and feel more precious as a result. Harper herself is an intriguing character, and very well played by Emmy Happisburgh – she’s sympathetic because of her situation, but in a lot of ways her blind refusal to constructively engage with her problems (however relatable it might be) is infuriating. As the play ends, it’s hard to define exactly what journey she’s been on over the past two days, or to tell if anything in her life is really going to change.

With Happisburgh appearing in every scene, the other six members of the impressive cast play ten characters between them. Cameron Robertson neatly encapsulates in his performance the differences between Harper’s husband Seth and her one-off lover James, while Joseph Langdon turns the millennial stereotype on its head as two of the youngest and most insightful characters, both of them played with charisma and humour. A special mention also to Bea Watson, who makes a confident professional debut in this production, standing out particularly as Harper’s confused and isolated teenage daughter Sarah.

Harper Regan at Tabard Theatre
Photo credit: Rob Youngson

Pollyanna Newcombe’s production keeps the staging relatively simple, with well-chosen props and use of ambient sound and lighting effects to bring each location believably to life. The play is also notable for its carefully choreographed scene changes, which are not only enjoyable to watch but also allow the audience a little bit of processing time – something that we don’t get a lot of during the dialogue-heavy scenes.

Though the content of the play occasionally shows its age, the themes it explores continue to resonate, and it’s refreshing to experience a story that’s so definitively led by a female character and cast member. This is an accomplished debut production with some great performances, and though Harper’s final destination doesn’t entirely satisfy, her journey is still well worth a watch.

Harper Regan is at Tabard Theatre until 1st June.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Michelle Payne, Sad About The Cows

Michelle Payne is a playwright, director and performer whose work has been widely produced since 2015, when her debut play Orchid picked up two awards on its first outing. She’s also a founder of Caspa Arts, an acting school for young performers who can’t afford to go to drama school, and from tomorrow brings one-woman show Sad About The Cows to Tristan Bates Theatre for a week-long run.

The dark comedy explores the themes of female self-image through the story of Rachel, a young woman obsessed with consuming. “In the age of social media we are constantly bombarded with information and images, and it’s how her impressionable mind processes this,” explains Michelle. “I wanted to create a seemingly high-functioning character that happens to suffer with her mental health – it does not define who she is.”

Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre

Though it’s not a directly autobiographical piece, Michelle did draw on her own experience to write Sad About The Cows. “I’ve seen a lot of theatre and TV about characters who face problems with their mental health, but hadn’t necessarily seen anything that resonated with my experiences,” she says. “I used my personal experience as a starting point for creating the play, but made sure that I adapted the plot so that Rachel is definitely a fictional character. This thought helps me to safeguard myself in the performance, to remember that I’m just telling an important story.”

Sad About The Cows transfers to Tristan Bates with a female creative team, after first being performed as part of the John Thaw Initiative Working Class Season with Actor Awareness earlier this year. “We stepped in for a gap in programming for the first full length showing as part of the John Thaw Initiative, which challenged me to finish writing the play,” says Michelle. “From this, the Tristan Bates offered us the week run. I was lucky enough to find a diverse female creative team who have shared slightly different views about body image and its relationship to mental health. Each creative in the team had something different to offer towards the piece, whether that be culturally different or from their life experiences so far! It’s been a great process with five different voices in the room.”

According to national charity BEAT, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – 75% of them female. Michelle hopes the play will break down barriers and start a conversation about the subject: “The main thing I’d like people to know about eating disorders is that it’s not necessarily that people who suffer want to be skinny, it’s often a way of keeping control. And also that people can function despite the illness. I’d like our audiences to be able to have an open discussion about mental health disorders. So often the stigma stops people from discussing this at all and people worry about what others might think if they admit they suffer.”

Catch Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre from 21st-25th May.

Review: Summer Street at Waterloo East Theatre

The idea for Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical (to give it its full title) dates back to 2004, when writer and director Andrew Norris was inspired to pay homage to the Australian soaps of his youth, and the stars who dominated UK pop charts and panto line-ups for much of the 80s and 90s. The result is a well-meaning, nostalgic and unashamedly ridiculous comedy musical that’s probably best appreciated after a glass of wine or two.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

The plot revolves around Bruce (Simon Snashall), Angie (Sarah-Louise Young), Paul (Myke Cotton) and Steph (Julie Clare), four former stars of popular musical “soapy”, Summer Street. All but one have failed to have any kind of acting career following their dramatic exits from the show, so they jump at the chance to reunite for an anniversary special – but all is not as it seems… While on camera one of the characters has to be rescued from an abandoned mine just before her wedding, life behind the scenes has its own share of drama as each of the four actors reflects on life post-Summer Street.

The show obviously takes great delight in sending up all the well-worn soapy tropes, from dramatic deaths to product placement. The on-screen characters are recognisable stereotypes – the doctor with an alcohol problem, the in-the-closet lesbian in love with her best friend, the nosey neighbour – and anyone who knows anything about Neighbours or Home and Away (or, to be fair, any of the UK soaps) will never fail to get the joke. It’s all enjoyably silly and there are some quite funny bits, often at the most unexpected moments – one character’s account of his wife’s tragic demise and the heroic actions of Pogo the neighbourhood dog are highlights.

The problem is that in trying to poke fun at the banality of the soap format, Summer Street ends up suffering a similar fate; the characters are under-developed, the story makes little sense, and several of the familiar jokes are repeated so often that they start to feel a bit tired. The same, unfortunately, goes for the musical numbers, which are for the most part catchy enough but tend to go on just a bit longer than seems necessary. (In Brighton only half of the songs were performed, which says quite a lot about their value within the production.)

The show may have its flaws but the cast enthusiastically make the best of it, and there are some strong vocal performances – particularly from Sarah-Louise Young, who steals the show in Act 2 with pop ballad Chains Around My Heart. The nature of the production calls for larger than life performances, and all four cast members seem more than happy to oblige, adopting suitably flamboyant Aussie accents, cheerfully reeling off lines of expositional dialogue – often at high speed – and throwing themselves without hesitation into Lauren Chinery’s comically stagey dance routines.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

To give credit where it’s due, Summer Street never pretends to be anything other than what it is: a spoof comedy musical that takes an already over-the-top TV format and takes it up another notch or three. In that sense, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Could it have been done with a bit more finesse? Yes, probably. But as it stands the show is harmless fun, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Summer Street is at Waterloo East Theatre until 2nd June.

Review: Mycorrhiza at The Space

The second of four plays to feature in The Space’s Foreword Festival – an annual project supporting first-time writers in bringing their work to the stage – the darkly humorous Mycorrhiza marks a strong writing debut from Luke Stapleton. Directed by Sepi Baghaei, the two-hander flits between past and present as thirteen-year-old school friends Dean (Scott Afton) and Alicia (Corrina Buchan) spend the night hiding out on a remote Scottish island, and then return six years later – in somewhat odd circumstances – as very different people. In both cases, secrets are shared and support offered, with the play particularly highlighting the way gender expectations shape each character’s way of dealing with their own trauma.

The play takes its unusual name from a symbiotic association between fungi and plants which, quietly and without fuss, ensures both have what they need to survive. This becomes a metaphor for friendship, and the reasonable expectation that even when we feel most alone, someone will be there to offer the help and support we need. The relationship between Dean and Alicia is well developed; unglamorous, often immature, and littered with mistakes, it nonetheless always feels believable. Much of the credit for this must go to two excellent performances from Corrina Buchan and Scott Afton, who confidently negotiate the script’s many twists and turns, and somehow make these two very different characters feel like a natural fit.

Ultimately, the friends are united by the pain caused by deep personal trauma – but while Alicia sees nothing wrong in reaching out to her friend for help, Dean can’t bring himself to do the same when the tables are turned, despite having gone to extreme lengths to have her there. Suddenly, all the earlier “harmless” jokes about his manhood and slim stature take on a much darker significance as he struggles to open up, even to the person he trusts the most. (Nor does it help that each time he tries to assert his masculinity, he’s easily overpowered – both physically and intellectually – by his more dominant friend.)

Taking us back and forth in time works well as a narrative device, teasing out the story a little at a time, but it proves to be a bit of an issue when it comes to staging. The need to visually differentiate between past and present results in several lengthy blackouts while the actors hastily clear the stage – tent and all – and set up for the next scene. This is all very efficiently done, but it does mean regular significant interruptions to the flow of a play that otherwise holds the audience’s attention with ease. That said, the production does successfully capture the wildness and isolation of the island, with Vanessa Morton’s lighting design particularly effective as it follows the passing hours, and day becomes night becomes day again.

Mycorrhiza takes a little-known natural phenomenon and applies it to a situation we can all relate to. As thirteen-year-olds, Dean and Alicia struggle to get their heads around the strange word their teacher mentioned in class, or to fully grasp the scientific details – but they instinctively understand that it’s a perfect metaphor for their own imperfect but enduring connection. The play ventures into some dark territory, but ultimately the feeling of connection it leaves you with is both reassuring and uplifting. This compelling drama is a promising debut, and promises good things to come from Luke Stapleton.

Mycorrhiza is at The Space until 18th May.

For more details about the Foreword Festival or to support the project, visit their Kickstarter.

Review: Hair at the Orchard Theatre

When it was first performed 50 years ago, Hair caused quite a stir with its profanity, depictions of drug use and full frontal nudity. These days it’s far less shocking, but still raises an eyebrow or two with its extensive list of pre-show warnings (it’s the first – and quite possibly last – time I’ve ever seen a notice on the door alerting me to “a 20-minute UV sequence”) and even in these more liberal times, it’s still not a show I’d recommend if you’re easily offended. But there’s no question that this 50th anniversary tour is a very strong production, which explodes on to the Orchard stage in a psychedelic showcase of spectacular vocal and visual talent. And songs. A lot of songs.

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair is set in 1960s New York and invites us into the world of “the tribe”, a group of long-haired, peace-loving hippies who take a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, and ultimately take to the streets in protest against the war in Vietnam. One of their number, Claude (Paul Wilkins), becomes torn between staying true to the pacifist views he shares with his friends and burning his draft card in protest, and the expectation of society and his conservative parents that he go and fight for his country.

A large proportion of Act 1 is taken up by introducing the characters and their way of life; it’s not so much a plot as a picture, which forms piece by piece as each member of the group has their moment in the spotlight. Among them are Berger (Jake Quickenden), who within minutes is running around in the audience wearing a very skimpy loin cloth and not a lot else; Sheila (Daisy Wood Davis), the group’s most outspoken political protester; Jeanie (Alison Arnopp), who’s pregnant and in love with Claude; Woof (Bradley Judge), who’s in love with Mick Jagger… Everyone has their part to play – and although in Act 2 Claude emerges as the story’s central character, the show is performed throughout by a well-honed and seamless ensemble.

While the almost total absence of a coherent plot won’t be to everyone’s taste, one thing that can’t be denied is the quality of the performances. The vocally demanding score – which features an unusually large number of songs, including timeless favourites I Got Life, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In – proves no match for either Gareth Bretherton’s on-stage band or the fourteen-strong cast. The latter in particular seem utterly unfazed by the high notes, the tongue-twisting lyrics or the fact that they often have to tackle both whilst jumping up and down, lying on the floor, or stark naked (although in fairness, that only happens once and you don’t really see anything).

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

As we were leaving, my friend said that she thought Hair was “of its time” – but I’m not sure I agree. While the set, costumes and characters are very obviously from the 60s and the story speaks about a specific moment in American history and culture, the idea of a nation divided and the responsibility we all have to speak out against injustice and toxic nationalism is, depressingly, as topical now as it’s ever been. So maybe what’s most shocking about Hair isn’t the nudity or the drugs, but the fact that 50 years have passed and nothing’s really changed.

Hair is at the Orchard Theatre until 18th May, then continues on tour.