Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Opened 23 April, 2008

Have you ever found yourself, in the middle of a crowd, suddenly wonderstruck by the notion of such a vast number of full, complex and independent lives – of separate universes, effectively, as far as those at their respective centres are concerned? This, I think, is something akin to the driving preoccupation of Simon Stephens’ playwriting. We see his characters’ conduct and hear their words, and catch persistent echoes of something more inward and numinous, but as far as direct perception goes we get no more than the occasional glimpse. His characters seldom even connect directly with each other, since such connection requires the permission and active collaboration of all parties. The best we can do, usually, is try to understand at some little distance.
Harper Regan walks out of her home and job in Uxbridge to visit her dying father in Stockport. On her way there and back she encounters a series of other figures, each of whom offers a peek at their own worldview and metaphysic (apart from Harper’s husband and daughter, only one other character appears with her in more than a single scene). Harper seems oddly untouched by these episodes: Lesley Sharp’s delivery of her lines is unchangingly affectless and a little stilted, as well as conspicuously devoid of any Mancunian accent. In the course of the second half we begin to realise that she is both dominated by and armoured against her own central issue, the reason her family moved south – her husband’s conviction for a sex offence – and see her family’s first faltering steps towards dealing with their own continuing individual and collective relationships.
Marianne Elliott’s staging and Hildegarde Bechtler’s design underline the sense of encounter-and-separation: between scenes, one character or another remains stationary whilst whole sets truck on and offstage or revolve away from them. Although it feels to me somewhat over-familiar in terms of Stephens’ output, I am always gratified to experience this kind of trust in an audience’s ability and willingness to look beneath an apparently unexceptional surface. I also owe Stephens a debt of gratitude: if he had not made Harper, in passing, a fan of that magnificent female punk band The Slits, I would not have found out that they have reformed.
 Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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