Harrogate review at Royal Court, London – ‘queasily compelling’

Sarah Ridgeway and Nigel Lindsay in Harrogate at Royal Court, London. Photo: Richard Lakos

Al Smith’s Harrogate was the most striking piece of new writing to premiere at the 2015 HighTide festival (impressive given that 2015 was probably the festival’s most strongly programmed year to date). Smith went on to adapt Gogol’s Diary of a Madman for the Gate Theatre with reasonably solid results – it was smart and very entertaining, even if it felt, at times, as if it were pacing warily around its source material. Harrogate, which is now embarking on a UK tour, is altogether more honed, a queasily compelling piece, a play that understands its own capacity to appal.

The two-hander split into three scenes. In the first, a man is talking to a girl who gives every impression of being his daughter. They’re easy with one another, affectionate, close. Once Smith has located that little black line, he works away at it with his nails: how close is too close? In this scene and the two that follow he explores the intensity of parental love and its capacity to consume and mutate, as well as ideas of power and control within relationships.

Nigel Lindsay, newly cast, gives an affable, measured performance as the man, while Sarah Ridgeway, returning to her role, manages to convince as three separate characters who are, by necessity, echoes of each other while also exploring that awkward space between girlhood and womanhood. There are more laughs here than you might expect, given the dark places the writing goes, only the last scene feels a little too neat and self-aware. Richard Twyman’s production remains taut, even if the little musical hitches and twitches between scenes, designed to disconcert, feel unnecessary. The play does that work well enough.

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Al Smith’s magnificently murky and disconcerting play returns for a UK tour