Following the brutal anger of Motortown, playwright Simon Stephens has written another play about a damaged central character, but this time it is an altogether more subtle and delicate portrayal of a woman trying to hold things together in the face of internal anguish. Caroline Bishop was at the first night of Harper Regan at the National’s Cottesloe theatre…
Harper is a mother, a wife, a daughter, who lives an ‘ordinary’ life with husband Seth and 17-year-old daughter Sarah in Uxbridge. Stephens’s play opens with Harper at work – we never quite find out what she does, just that she doesn’t have the qualifications to do it – asking her small-minded boss for a few days off to visit her dying father in Manchester. He, smarmy, self-important, refuses; later, she goes anyway, risking the job that is supporting her unemployed husband and college-bound daughter.
This decision is clearly understandable, but what Stephens does not initially make clear is why Harper gets on a train to Manchester without telling her family where she is going. Though there are some signals of simmering discontent – Harper’s unwillingness to be tactile with her husband, indications of a family rift revealed in a conversation with Sarah, and Harper’s desire to chat to an unknown teenager on a bridge – Stephens waits until after the interval to give us an answer.
That answer shows Harper (Lesley Sharp) to be a strong, loyal woman who has borne estrangement from her parents and a move away from her home in order to support her accused husband. And yet despite this fierce family loyalty, underneath she cannot shake her own doubts about him. The death of her father – whom she visits too late – releases the catch on the emotion she has dammed behind a layer of pride and faithfulness, and she spends the following two days in a state of unhinged abandon, momentarily off the rails that normally keep her heading straight on in life.
Marianne Elliott’s production brings out both the humour and the torment in Stephens’s scenario. Sharp as Harper and Nick Sidi as Seth movingly depict the heartbreak of a couple trying hard to suppress the emotional devastation of two years ago, while Jessica Raine covers Sarah’s own hurt with an appropriate layer of teenage bolshiness.
Two days after her father’s death, having had sex with a stranger, stabbed a man and confronted her estranged mother, Harper returns to normality – now shown to be anything but. In an extremely moving scene, Seth describes an idyllic future family life, unimpeded by the issues that currently haunt them. Whether this idyll can become reality or will remain a fantasy for this damaged trio is left for the audience to wonder.