HARROGATE – Royal Court & touring

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Aleks SierzLeave a Comment

Royal Court Theatre, London – until 29 October 2016
Then touring until 16 November 2016

What’s incest got to do with a town in North Yorkshire? At first this seems a perfectly reasonable question to ask of Al Smith’s brilliantly written, if a little bit tricksy, two-hander, which begins somewhere nearer to Guilford than to Leeds. The central character is Patrick, the father of an under-aged teen daughter, and husband of a hardworking doctor. The daughter has a best friend called Carly, and an older boyfriend called Adam. At some point recently, she and Adam have gone to the northern town so that she can lose her virginity, so the title of the play is a wonderfully unlikely metaphor for an illicit adventure.

But it is, of course, not the only illicit feeling that pulses through this shocking and absorbing drama. At one point, the daughter asks her father, “Do you think we are inappropriately close?” An idea he immediately denies, but by then — more than halfway through the running time of 80 minutes — we know enough to question this denial. But Smith is much too clever to write a crass little play about incest. Or about abuse. All we really know, until the final thrilling scene, is that there is a strain of incestuous feeling between father and daughter, a bond that may or may not exist solely in Patrick’s head.

What’s so exciting about this debut play, which was first seen at last year’s HighTide Festival, is that the playwright has found a perfect form through which to explore the feelings and sensations of this family. Using two actors — one who plays Patrick and the other who plays the females in his life — he has created three scenes, each of which shows a different male-female rapport. It is a style of writing that is impressively intelligent, emotionally truthful and strongly resonant, and also beautifully controlled. Being a play about memory means that Harrogate has the capacity to surprise its audience at every turn.

As we watch Patrick struggle to create a satisfyingly erotic image inside his head, we can see that he is trying to recapture his youthful sense of desire, that strange land in which memory blurs with fascination. As the cover blurb on the playtext quotes: “I dream about you young. When I’m asleep you’re as young as the girl I met.” But can he recapture this sense of excitement through role play? And who will enact his ideal female? Because we know that the actors are acting the role-play episodes carry a particular charge — it’s the kind of play that would repay multiple viewings.

Richard Twyman’s production, which embarks on a UK your after finishing its run here in London, buzzes with physical and psychological pleasures. Tom Piper’s empty and anodyne set suggests the blankness of a mind that peoples its thoughts with memories, while Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Ridgeway are perfect as the various combinations of couples. He acts differently because he plays different roles in life, as father and as estranged husband. She plays different females with meticulous attention to small gestures and vocal inflections. Some moments are electrifying. By the time that the final powerful image of a patient coming, “breath-by-breath”, to realise their own mortality arrives, it is hard to deny that this is a magnificent study of the human heart in all its darkness, cruelty and hurt.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk  

Harrogate is at the Royal Court Theatre until 29 October.

The post Harrogate, Royal Court appeared first on Aleks Sierz.

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Aleks Sierz
Aleks Sierz FRSA is a theatre critic, and author of the seminal study of new 1990s playwrights, In-Yer-Face Theatre. His other books include Rewriting the Nation, The Theatre of Martin Crimp, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights and Modern British Playwriting. His latest book (co-authored with Lia Ghilardi) is The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre. He also works as a journalist, broadcaster, and lecturer. Aleks blogs independently at www.sierz.co.uk and tweets at @alekssierz.
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Aleks Sierz on RssAleks Sierz on Twitter
Aleks Sierz
Aleks Sierz FRSA is a theatre critic, and author of the seminal study of new 1990s playwrights, In-Yer-Face Theatre. His other books include Rewriting the Nation, The Theatre of Martin Crimp, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights and Modern British Playwriting. His latest book (co-authored with Lia Ghilardi) is The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre. He also works as a journalist, broadcaster, and lecturer. Aleks blogs independently at www.sierz.co.uk and tweets at @alekssierz.

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