“these actors ensure Stephens’ wordy script continues to punch above its weight”
Simon Stephens is one of the great contemporary British playwrights. By no stretch his best play, ‘Harper Regan’ remains a timely and touching work fully deserving of a revival eleven years after it first premiered at the National Theatre. Presented by Contentment Productions, set up to redress the balance towards 50:50 equal representation for female actors, and directed by Pollyanna Newcombe, this is a powerful female-led production that moves as much as it shocks.
Harper (Emmy Happisburgh) is on a journey to see her dying father one last time before he passes away. Abandoning her husband (Cameron Robertson), daughter (Bea Watson) and day job (under Philip Gill’s creepy manager), she flies from Uxbridge to Stockport, meeting 17-year-old Tobias (Joseph Langdon), drunken flirt Mickey Nestor (Marcus McManus) and her disappointed mother (Alma Reising) along the way. Harper’s is a story of renewal, self-discovery, and the power of the painful truth.
Leading the charge in practically every scene, Happisburgh is mesmerising as Harper, imbuing the character with a hint of Northern edge and dash of vulnerability in equal measure. Her energy and presence are matched by a strong ensemble, but McManus’ leering Mickey stands out as a compelling mix of Ryan Gosling and that creepy guy sat in the corner of Wetherspoons whistling at women (NB: maybe this is only something I’ve experienced…). Newcombe’s direction places emphasis on the relationships and conflicts between characters, and these are well handled by the cast. For me, Stephens script needs a bit of a trim, and the actors should feel free to roam a bit more – this production felt very still. That said, these actors ensure Stephens’ wordy script continues to punch above its weight.
The contemporary set of gauze flats and well-chosen location indicators keeps the production design simple but effective, and allows for some cool lighting transitions. Scene changes are expertly choreographed and often come as a gasp-inducing shock to the Tabard audience. Why can’t all scene changes in theatre be as interesting to watch as these?
A punchy drama of redemption, ‘Harper Regan’ is a real Northern Powerhouse of a play, and this is astounding work from a cast that will only get better as the run continues and they learn to sit more comfortably in their intriguing and nuanced characters.
“A less convincing second half dampens the impact of Donald’s piece, but remains fun nonetheless”
This enjoyable – if not a little odd – triple bill of shows at the Drayton Arms groups together three intriguing and original shows connected by the omnipresent spectre of the past, and how it shapes our understanding of our own personal present.
Jack Donald’s startling and poetic ‘A Sticky Season’ starts off the evening on a high that the other shows never quite reach. A lyrical, ‘Beat’-inspired monologue delivered by Donald himself, the story follows the musings of our narrator wandering through a forest in the summer of 2018. His journey takes him to Eighties-era San Francisco, where he watches Gaetan Dugas turn from club loving boy to the media’s AIDS scapegoat, and ends in Sixties-era Islington, where he witnesses the turbulent relationship (and ultimate murder/suicide) of Joe Orton and jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell.
The motif of fruit oozes through this production, infiltrating the stage design, lighting, and action. If ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ and ‘Call My By Your Name’ had a child, it would probably look a like this. Marcus McManus and Rosie-Lea Sparkle offer necessary support for Donald, using movement and bodies to become at once other characters and Donald’s internal mindscape. Pollyanna Newcombe as director keeps these moments of movement solid and precise. If ‘A Sticky Season’ could be improved, it would be Donald allowing himself to relax with his audience and enjoy the comedic moments more. Riveting stuff that deserves a run in its own right.
A less convincing second half dampens the impact of Donald’s piece, but remains fun nonetheless. ‘Minor Disruptions’ introduces us to Katie Paterson’s take on childhood. Relying heavily on audience participation, Paterson’s one-person show is funny at times, performed with confidence, and showing skills in improvisation that match those of a stand-up comic. However, a drab finish and too much time spent (literally) in the dark makes the show feel unfinished. Some interesting moments, such as having audience members slopping sun cream and water all over the place, are overshadowed by the more tedious sections that neither reveal anything new nor drive along some semblance of a story.
The final show is ‘Crystal Bollix Presents The Bitch Ball’, a study of bitch-ness with Alexandra Christie’s alter-ego Crystal Bollix. Accompanied by deadpan and underused pianist Lena Stahl, Bollix takes us through a brief history of the word ‘bitch’ and their own relationship to it. The show relies, as advertised, heavily on lip-syncing and audience interaction, but both need to be turned up to 11 to make the whole thing more enjoyable. There needs to be more happening here to make watching someone lip-sync entertaining past the opening few minutes.
Queer Trilogy is a mixed bag of an evening, but worth it for ‘A Sticky Season’. Anyone who likes the idea of sharing a hamster story, or having their face plunged into whipped cream, will enjoy the second half too.