Harper Regan debuted in 2008 at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, and has been revived by Contentment Productions – recently launched to champion female leads and equal representation – at London’s Tabard Theatre.
This is a brave and unusual choice for a production house that champions women. Despite having a female lead, this play does not have a 50:50 cast and the title character is deeply flawed. She is very unlikeable – not that all women must be likeable – and a terrible mother and daughter. Apart from this, some rather uncomfortable sexually charged moments are left unchallenged.
Author Simon Stephens brings myriad themes to the play, but in this production none really lands apart from an overwhelming sense of misery. Harper (Emmy Happisburgh) and daughter Sarah (Bea Watson) have an interesting chemistry, but otherwise there is a real lack of love between the characters, who sacrifice so much in their lives but make uncomfortable emotional leaps from soap-opera drama to everyday banality.
The set is aiming for realism, but the use of canvas panels to change scene – from office to canal, for example – is incongruously modernistic, though effective. The sound cues are too loud and at points there is static feedback.
A supporting ensemble play a variety of characters around Harper. Of these, Joseph Langdon, who provides comedic relief as teenager Tobias, and Marcus McManus, as the despicable racist and journalist Mickey Nestor, stand out.
Happisburgh plays Harper as emotionally raw, angry and tense at all times. Apart from the final scene, in which we glimpse some hope at last, there is a frustrating lack of quiet and subtlety.