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.
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.
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.
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… 😉