Theatre in Wales

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Impressive Premiere for Significant Writer


RWCMD Cardiff- Harper Regan , Caird Studio RWCMD Cardiff , December 14, 2011
At RWCMD by RWCMD Cardiff- Harper Regan Simon Stephens is one of the three most performed writers to have emerged in England in the last ten years. Waking Exploits tours his 2007 “Pornography” in Spring next year. “Harper Regan” was produced, also in 2007, to acclaim at London’s National Theatre. As with Suzan-Lori Parks earlier this year, the Royal College does Cardiff theatre-goers a service in giving a dramatist of significance a Welsh premiere.

The company always has a disadvantage of a cast being much the same age. That has happily never prevented boldness in the selection of play. “In the Blood” featured a mother with a cluster of children. “Harper Regan”, too, has a mother and child, twenty-four years apart in age. Rebecca Newman and Katherine Pearce impressed at the inaugural production in the Richard Burton theatre. It is tribute to their acting, and director Chris Rolls, that the relationship works.

Katherine Pearce as the eponymous Harper has her hair brushed forward and moves with the deliberateness of gait that marks middle age. Rebecca Newman’s first utterance contains a squawk in an upper register. Her Sarah is possessed of all the vocal and physical lability of teenagehood.

Harper herself is on stage throughout, while nine other characters circle around her. Adam Skeats gives journalist Mickey the nastiest of chuckles. Dafydd Llyr Thomas portrays Duncan as a sheen of affability. But then the character, in Stephens’ steely-eyed world, refers to his mate with cruelty as “tinhead”. In the uneasy encounter of anonymous, internet-facilitated adultery Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins gives James a character-deepening flicker of a half-smile.

Two characters are placed at opposing ends of the generational spectrum. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Tobias has the perkiness of youth, untainted by experience. Gillian Saker carries the physical sagginess of elderly parenthood.

The new public area of the RWCMD has undoubtedly a stirring sweep to it. But it is good that the old workhorse of a space, the Caird Studio, is still to be used. Designer Bethany Seddon solves the concrete pillar problem with a circular stage. Those performers who are not in scene swiftly place the few props, a desk, or a chair, on stage. They then give it a half-rotation. This use of a circle is metaphor for the play, whose action depicts a journey that ends where it sets out. But a circle is also self-enclosed. The action may end with a planting in a flowerbed, but in Stephens’ elliptical writing it is far from conclusive whether the character has shifted.

Twenty-five thousand scripts are on the hunt for a stage at any one time; that is the estimate of theatre writer critic Aleks Sierz. “Harper Regan” reveals why Simon Stephens stands out. It is formally innovative. A central piece of exposition is withheld until the fifth scene. Under conventional rules of dramaturgy it would have been sewn into the first ten minutes of dialogue. When it does come, it throws a previous scene into different focus. It is not just that the characters surprise us, the audience, but that they surprise themselves too. The London production came with an interval. It was reported that the obliqueness of the structure regularly led some in the audience to drift away.

The characters are vulnerable but the deft writing avoids any crescendos of clumping confessional. When James makes mention of the stranger in the house that is a teenage son, it is truth. The lead character, Harper, gradually solidifies around a kind of muted integrity, guided by the particular style of intonation that Katherine Pearce brings to the role.
Stephens’ theme is ultimately the sheer unknowability of others, even those closest in our lives. An early reviewer made comment that “the intimacy of strangers is often far easier than that of those we love.” But, while “Harper Regan” is, like “Pornography”, filled with interest, it is not quite a drama.
Theatre writers are commonly exposed when required to treat the world of work. Words are deployed more as labels rather than as true indicators of experience. The critics more often than not let it pass. Stephens is better than many. Nonetheless, when Mr Barnes talks of all the Bills of Lading to be dealt with, the words have a self-consciousness to them. It is not the acting, as Dafydd Llyr Thomas is good in the role. It is the words in themselves. The place name Levenshulme flashes by, pronounced, I think, incorrectly with a “sh” rather than as “Levv-erns-hyoom

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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