Harper Regan at the Tabard Theatre review ****

Harper Regan

Tabard Theatre, 1st June 2019

The Tourist’s first visit to the Tabard Theatre in leafy Chiswick, which given its proximity, its longevity, it has been around since 1985, and the quirky breadth of its repertoire, new plays and revivals, own and other productions, must count as a massive oversight. Still better late than never.

Now one way or another I have seen a fair few of playwright Simon Stephens’ original plays and adaptations. Mind you there are a fair few of them, him being a prolific, and very effective, story teller. He probably veers a little towards being a playwright’s (and creatives’s) playwright than a “populist”, he is popular with those arty Continental types, but I would contend he is not as knotty as some of his contemporaries, like that Crimp chap. And he definitely has a way with words.

Harper Regan premiered at the National Theatre in 2008, (directed by the splendid Marianne Elliot and with the equally splendid Lesley Sharp in the title role), and tells the story, across 11 chronological scenes, of an eponymous early forties everywoman as she embarks on a journey from her home in Uxbridge to Stockport, and then Manchester, before returning to he family a couple of days later. Her husband has been convicted, maybe wrongly, of abuse and can no longer teach. Her daughter may not be able to afford university. Her father is dying, hence the trip, and her relationship with her mother is “strained” to say the least. Along the way we encounter her prat of a boss in the office she works in, who is bizarrely reluctant to let her take time off, she meets a student peer of her daughter, has a flirt, which doesn’t end too well, with an alpha nut-job journalist bloke she meets in a pub, then another, arranged, sexual encounter in a hotel room with a somewhat older, kinder fellow, and has it out with Mum. No uplifting ending here folks.

As usual with Mr Stephens the play doesn’t offer up its secrets quickly or indeed clearly. That is not to say that its dialogue, centred on Harper, and flecked with humour and darkness, (though this is not a “black comedy”), is opaque. Just that its musings, on the power relationships between the men and women, on family, on death and everyday moralities, emerge cumulatively from Harper’s journey. Mr Stephens is not afraid of exploring some pretty unpleasant facets of the human condition through his characters, and this play is no exception, and there is always an awkward, unsettling quality to the apparently naturalistic interactions of the characters. The small stage piles up with secrets, guilt, frustration, evasion and aggression. A metaphor for what lurks beneath in buttoned-up Blighty, a lesson on women’s subordination or a provocation by a veteran of the form? All of the above. Simon Stephens plays with a number of themes without quite pining then down.

It takes a bit of actorly doing to capture Harper’s mix of defensiveness and assertion in her “roles” as wife, mother, daughter, employee and sexual being but Emily Happisburgh was up to the task. She is, with TV veteran Jenny Kirsch, one half of Contentment Productions whose laudable aim is to give “a greater platform to complex female voices”. This was a pretty good place to start. I can’t vouch for how director Pollyanna Newcombe has approached the detail of the text but it felt to me like she had captured the tone, pace and mood of the play.

The Tabard is, as studio theatres above pubs generally are, a cosy space so set and props had to be man and woman handled between the scenes which, with choreographed movement and blasts of sound, actually enhanced the episodic, fractured nature of the story. Ms Happisburgh was admirably supported by Philip Gill, Joseph Langdon, Cameron Robertson, Marcus McManus, Alma Reising and, especially, Bea Watson in her stage debut.

I can see why this sort of thing might leave some frustrated but even on a overly-sultry Saturday afternoon I was drawn in by both play and production. Oh and a big thank you to the Tabard. I was poorly for my initial booked performance but the very kind people at TT were more than happy to change to another performance and wish me well.