“I bet you didn’t expect this to happen, did you? Big bloody confessional kind of horror-story thing.” So says the eponymous heroine of Simon Stephens’ new play, “Harper Regan.” Although it has the requisite ingredients for a modish dystopia — a desperate character gone AWOL sliding toward dread and danger — this is a million miles from David Mamet’s superficially similar “Edmond.” The singular quality of “Harper Regan” is its unfashionable sense of hope. Difficult contemporary family tensions have rarely been handled with such affecting restraint, tenderness and optimism.
Stephens has a gift for rendering the ordinary extraordinary. So much so, that the raw material of his plot initially risks being considered hackneyed.
Harper Regan, an unhappy 41-year-old wife and mother (luminous Lesley Sharp), must quit her job to visit her dying father. But, when she reaches him — too late — her grip on reality loosens. A string of confrontations with strangers and relatives forces her to re-evaluate her life.
Although that scenario threatens to be dour, the generosity of Stephens’ writing and Marianne Elliott’s immaculately acted production creates an engrossing breadth and depth of compassion.
One of Stephens’ key devices is the upending of expectation. Harper’s succession of encounters begins with her over-effusive chat-up of a handsome, disaffected 17-year-old on a bridge (gently underplayed Troy Glasgow). Yet nothing turns out as expected.
The initial set-up of Harper’s family life appears off-kilter and strained. Stephens withholds the explanation for this, but the playwright’s reason has nothing to do with cheap thriller-writing and everything to do with characters honestly resisting talking about a family secret too painful to discuss.
Yet, when Harper reveals all to a stranger at the beginning of the second act, everything falls into place in a way that is dramatically powerful and emotionally truthful.
That follows the thrillingly unguessable cliffhanger of the act one climax in a pub, with an increasingly cocky and unpleasant journalist (easeful Jack Deam).
Elliott’s recent work — award-strewn productions of “Saint Joan” and “War Horse” — suggests she’s happiest on a grand visual scale. But armed with 11 subdued scenes in the close confines of Hildegard Bechtler’s neatly revolving and sliding walls, she amasses eloquent, deftly controlled moments to captivating effect. The restraint of her actors whips up astonishing tension. Audiences lean in to read the charged-up subtext as characters stare at one another in caught, fraught moments.
Unpredictability is, once again, key. Stephens creates characters that don’t conform to trite stereotype. Within moments of meeting over-eager nurse Justine (Jessica Harris), we are ready to write her off as painfully perky. Then Stephens suddenly shines a light on her sadly dislocated private life.
Equally touching is Mahesh, a workmate of Harper’s stepfather. In about four minutes of stage time, Nitin Kundra makes him excitably gauche to the point of hilarious frustration. Although he interrupts the crucial showdown between Harper and her reproving mother (Susan Brown), his attempt to comfort Harper is truly heartfelt.
Part of what makes all the supporting perfs are so telling is that they have so much to work off with Sharp’s profoundly moving central performance.
Harper says of her erring husband (Nick Sidi): “I can’t go into his head.” But that’s exactly what Sharp allows auds to do with her character. Sharp is one of those rare, transfixing performers apparently without ego. A frequent TV actress, she’s watchful, alert and unerringly unjudgmental on stage, inhabiting the text rather than forcing out her own interpretation. Her unexaggerated listening is as arresting as her dialogue. Her scene with James (Brian Capron), a businessman she meets in a hotel for sex, is one of the finest acting duets this year. Alive to each other’s every tentative move, they pull off the considerable trick of totally convincing us not only that they are both on the brink of sad discoveries about themselves, but that they really are two people who have never met before.
Those discoveries that Harper makes reveal the play to be about faith in the strictly non-religious sense. Addressing all her relationships, she grows up in a way that is never sentimental and never condescends into pat life-lessons.
By the time she returns home, her relationships with her family — not least with her 17-year-old daughter (an outstandingly poised debut from drama school student Jessica Raine) — have all changed. The beautifully fragile final scene suggests that desperation might be assuaged by hope. This is Stephens’ most mature play yet.