Review: Harper Regan

By John Nathan, May 1, 2008

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

This is the second time this season that the National has staged a play featuring a woman in mid-life crisis. But whereas Lucinda Coxon’s comedy Happy Now? asked whether the middle-class idyll of children, affluence and career adds up to happiness, Simon Stephens’s heroine is pushed to the brink by a far less comfortable condition.

Harper Regan’s father is dying; her obsessive boss refuses to give her leave; her architect husband is unemployed; her teenage daughter’s school fees are mounting up and, to cap it all, she is over 40. Despite the threat of losing her job, she travels to Manchester to see her father who dies before she gets there. Something has got to give, and it does. Harper (Lesley Sharp) spirals into an odyssey, taking in, or at least touching on, Manchester’s underbelly. There is a brutal encounter with a rabidly antisemitic journalist who hates the way “Jews smell”.

Harper rejects his unwanted advances by glassing him in the throat. There are similarities in this descent to David Mamet’s Edmund, and Stephens deploys a similarly rhythmic, muscular dialogue, though without Mamet’s smart wit.

Still, Marianne Elliott’s excellent production poignantly delivers Stephens’s vision of an England populated by isolated individuals, each bearing their own grudges and brand of bitterness. And in the demanding title role, Sharp delivers a wonderfully varied performance — sardonic, vulnerable and angry — but always managing to transmit a good heart.

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Last updated: 11:58am, May 20 2008