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Review Round-up: Sharp Shines in Harper Regan

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Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens’ new play Harper Regan premiered at the National Theatre last Wednesday (23 April 2008, previews from 19 April), directed by NT associate Marianne Elliot and starring Lesley Sharp in the title role (See News, 16 Jan 2008). It runs in rep at the NT Cottesloe until 9 August.

The play tells of how, on a bright autumn night in 2006, Uxbridge housewife Harper Regan walks away from her home, her husband and her daughter and keeps on walking. And for two lost days and nights, until it looks as though her entire life might unravel, she doesn’t turn back. Harper Regan explores themes of family, love, discovery and delusion, as its ever-present titular character struggles to deal with a series of personal crises.

Writer Simon Stephens, a former resident dramatist at the Royal Court, won best new play at the 2005 Laurence Olivier Awards for On the Shores of the Wide World, which also had its London premiere in the NT Cottesloe. His follow-up, Motortown proved a critical success in 2006. Known for his authentic and often brutal studies of working-class life, Stephens’ other works include Bluebird, One Minute, Country Music and Pornography.

While overnight critics were somewhat lukewarm in their response to Harper Regan, there was almost unanimous praise for Lesley Sharp’s in the title role. Sharp, who remains onstage throughout, was described variously as “wonderful”, “stunning” and “deserving of awards”. However, despite the strength of Sharp’s central performance, many critics had reservations about the play's “artistically misjudged” use of graphic violence and often “meandering” narrative.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Is living in Uxbridge such bad news? The titular heroine of Simon Stephens’ compelling new play Harper Regan in the Cottesloe, prompting a magnificent performance from Lesley Sharp, is a character in crisis, out on the edge, poised in flight from her job, her husband and her daughter… This quality of fateful, mysterious ambiguity and anxiety is superbly conveyed by Sharp, who has the rare knack of making you feel exactly what the character is thinking without spelling it out... Marianne Elliott’s production, eerily designed by Hildegard Bechtler as a series of interlocking locations in an impersonal landscape, reaches a moment on transfiguration at a future point in Harper’s story, but there is no real resolution. You realise, in fact, that the play has been a story of expiation, and that Harper has gone through the mill just as much of telling what happened as of allowing those events to overtake her. And the sad, slow hum of Lesley Sharp’s performance is the best explanation of all.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “There’s a class of drama in which baffled, alienated characters go on walkabout to discover their own and life’s meaning: the oppressed businessman who gives Mamet’s Edmond its title, the New York protagonists of Howard Korder’s Lights, and now Harper Regan in Simon Stephens’ play of that name… This gives the excellent Lesley Sharp, who plays Harper, plenty of opportunities to display her ability to be sweet, naive, apologetic, angry, despairing and much else. But for the first half this isn’t quite enough to sustain a meandering narrative... Harper’s obsessive curiosity about everything brings some good, offbeat writing out of Stephens, especially in scenes in which the woman stalks and quizzes a puzzled black student nicely played by Troy Glasgow. But there are plenty of other quirky moments in Marianne Elliott’s production, some involving Michael Mears as Harper’s nerdish yet sinister boss, others Susan Brown as her mother, a prissy Alan Bennett northerner who asks the play’s basic question. Has she squandered her life on pointlessness? Yes – and maybe many of us do the same.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Modern dramatists, I have often claimed, lack the will or capacity to write star parts: a charge that Simon Stephens emphatically rebuts in a play in which his eponymous heroine is never off stage. The result is wholly beneficial. Even if there are times when Stephens overstresses the guilt and fear that haunts our post-Christian land, I relished every second of Lesley Sharp's performance… Stephens' picture of an England in which everyone furtively harbours dark secrets is only partly credible. But he has written a stunning star part that allows Sharp to display her abundant emotional range: she can be mocking, compassionate, tough or tender as occasion demands. Towards her mother, excellently played by Susan Brown, she is all cold-eyed anger; towards her deeply damaged husband, she displays an exasperated love… Marianne Elliott's sensitive production is strikingly designed by Hildegard Bechtler to suggest that, like the play itself, England is a series of dovetailing boxes, filled with an echoing solitude.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “One normally has a pretty good idea about a show's quality and general direction by the time the interval arrives. But Simon Stephens' new drama keeps springing surprises… The drama becomes an acutely perceptive and compassionate study of a brave and likeable woman trying to make sense of her life after it has been blighted by several different kinds of crisis. There is an unsentimental compassion in the writing, and a tough refusal to surrender to depression and despair, that I found genuinely uplifting… At its searching best, this play is about the possibility of spiritual redemption, but it is too savvy, sharp and witty to seem preachy or didactic… The show isn't helped by ugly, cumbersome designs by Hildegard Bechtler, but Marianne Elliott directs with passion and precision, while Lesley Sharp gives a performance that deserves awards in the title role… Among the supporting cast, Brian Capron as a kindly pick-up, Susan Brown as Harper's formidable mother, and Nitin Kundra, in a comic cameo of exceptional grace and humour, shine particularly brightly.”

  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times - “Have you ever found yourself, in the middle of a crowd, wonderstruck by the notion of such a vast number of full, complex and independent lives – of separate universes, in effect, as far as those at their respective centres are concerned? This, I think, is something akin to the driving preoccupation of Simon Stephens’ playwriting… Lesley Sharp’s delivery of her lines is unchangingly affectless and a little stilted, as well as devoid of any Mancunian accent. In the course of the second half, we begin to realise that she is both dominated by and armoured against her own central issue, the reason her family moved south – her husband’s conviction for a sex offence – and see her family’s first faltering steps towards dealing with their own continuing individual and collective relationships… Although it feels to me somewhat over-familiar in terms of Stephens’ output, I am always gratified to experience this kind of trust in an audience’s ability and willingness to look beneath an apparently unexceptional surface.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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