The Theatreguide.London Review
Cottesloe Theatre 2008
At the National Theatre right now is a very fine play about a woman cracking under the stress of an imperfect marriage, frustrating motherhood, pressure-filled job, a dying father, an alienated mother and the temptations of adultery.
It is Lucinda Coxon's 'Happy Now?'
And then there's Simon Stephens' 'Harper Regan', which contains all the same elements and touches on many of the same emotional chords, but in every case far less successfully.
Much of the problem lies in the difficulty of believing in the characters of Stephens' play.
The first person we meet (to disappear after one scene) is Harper's boss, presented as a certifiable loony, and Harper herself does a string of inexplicable things, like chatting up a puzzled teenager, before we're given much sense of what is driving her.
The rest of the characters are sketched in so minimally that we have to accept what we are told about them (like a shocking midpoint revelation about the husband) without seeing any hint of it ourselves.
It doesn't help that director Marianne Elliott has led Lesley Sharp as Harper and Jessica Raine as her teenage daughter to play in full soap opera mode, underlining and externally signifying everything to silent-movie excess, while everyone else is directed to underplay to the point of near-invisibility.
Jack Deam registers as a bloke in a bar who talks just that bit too much and exposes what a jerk he is, and Brian Capron has a nice scene as a surprisingly sensitive adulterer.
But I would defy you to recognise any of the other performers when they come back onstage after being off for a while, so little impression do they make.
Even in simple plot terms, the play has trouble holding us. The central event is Harper's impulsive decision to go to Manchester and her dying father without telling anyone, and much is made of everyone's panic when they don't know where she is and their anger when they find her.
But in fact Manchester is the first place her husband phones, her visit to the hospital is verified, and the only gap is not knowing which hotel she spent the night in - which means that you can't really believe in everyone's panic or find what she did all that irresponsible.
And the play ends, not with any resolution of Harper's problems but with her reduced to silently listening while a minor character, about whom we simply do not care, talks of his fantasies of happily-ever-after.
Harper Regan is less a play than a collection of rough character sketches searching for reasons to be in the same room, and too rarely finding them.
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