By Wayne Sheridan
The little bit I’d read about Harper Regan suggested to me that it might just be Shirley Valentine goes to Stockport. The reality of Harper was much darker and less quippy than Shirley and it was not afraid to dig into the seedy underbelly of everyday life.
The premise is simple; Harper is an everyday working Mum. She gets some bad news and has to return home to attend to her ill father. She goes and returns having learned some interesting life lessons. Oh… Did I mention that her husband is a registered sex offender, she’s stalking a young boy and decides to glass a guy in the throat?
The play opens as Harper (Hilary Cordery) is trying to arrange time off work. Her creepy boss, Elwood Barnes (Phil Cohen) is being blunt and refusing to give her the time. This seemed completely out of keeping with the rest of the play and told you very little about Harper save for some minor exposition that could have been picked up later on. Phil played the odious Elwood with a sinister menace that was unsettling, however it became apparent very quickly that this dramatic effect was merely searching for lines. A poor scene to start the play.
The subsequent scenes all fell into place nicely and helped me understand that this was a play set to look at ordinary life but also to show just how much chaos and inner turmoil can be going on behind the scenes. Harper’s family were a warm and loving unit on the surface but between mother, father and daughter there were tensions. Seth Regan (Mike Savill) was initially such a likeable guy, yet when you found out about his past, you began to tear the man apart in your mind. Then when these allegations are offered some doubt, there’s a want for this vile taint not to be true of someone so likeable. Rebecca Riddlestone shone as Sarah Regan, a fiesty and intelligent young woman with wisdom beyond her years: a fantastically realistic portrait of a modern teen. It’s a testament to both Mike and Rebecca’s performances that even when they were off the stage I was contemplating how Harper’s actions would affect them.
Harper’s somewhat estranged mother Alison (Lesley Robins) initially came across as a delicate and sympathetic old lady yet she delivered a brilliantly impressive medley of empathy, tenacity and sympathy sometimes all at once. As she challenged Harper on her understanding of her father’s actions I was moved nearly to tears.
Assisting Alison’s new husband was Martin Ashton (Daniel Ryan) who had, in the past, suffered a major head injury. It’s difficult to play any kind of mentally impaired character with utter conviction and I found this portrayal questionable. Smiling and waving do not make up the physicality of the mentally challenged and could have been portrayed more sensitively. I was shocked by this, particularly considering I knew Dan was capable of so much better. He also portrayed Tobias Rich, a young boy whom Harper befriends and in this he was an absolute triumph; delicate, conflicted and emotional, giving a genuinely moving performance. I’m left wondering whose decision it was to take these two in such polar opposite directions.
In the hospital, nurse Justine Rose (Kamila Gorecka) was a sympathetic shoulder for Harper to cry on. This could have so easily been another throwaway scene, yet Kamila gave an assured and comforting performance that led me to wish the NHS had more girls like Justine.
Seeking comfort in a bar Harper is pestered by sleazy newspaper hound Mickey Nestor (Joe Dominic) and he quickly moves the conversation in the direction of a bunk-up. Having played several on stage “B@$!&%0s” myself I know how hard it can be to find that saving grace and Joe did it expertly, making me laugh, loath and finally love when he got his comeuppance.
Rounding out the cast was the director himself David Griffiths as James Fortune, a man with whom Harper has sought out on the internet to have a fling with: quite a contrast to the previous scene as this moves from being all about sex to something more tender. David nicely showed James’ guilt at what he was doing, yet comfort in the many times he had.
Harper must then return home to account for herself. It’s suggested that the play is winding to a nice “tied ribbon” finale but is left on a somewhat ambiguous note with many questions still unanswered. Why Was Harper following Tobais? Was Seth actually guilty? Do they get the happy ending they hope for? Now Harper is truthful about her life can everyone speak plainly and stop evading their issues?
These are questions only Harper can answer and through Hilary’s performance you are left with a feeling that she now has the strength to. Hilary’s portrayal of Harper was a rollercoaster of emotions and guises, whether it’s holding back her contempt for her boss, comforting her daughter or getting into an verbal smackdown with her mother. I felt every moment of her performance and as she tumbled down the rabbit hole I found it hard to take my eyes off her. I was so convinced that at one point she was crying right beside me (Ah the beauty of bar shows) and I wanted to reach out and give her a hug. I’ve seen Hilary bring her “A” game but this was “A+”. In lesser hands Harper could have ended up as an unsympathetic cow, however Hilary takes her through her journey and you can see the chips and knocks of every previous scene in her performance.
And yet…the play! While having great moments there are sections of it that were pointless dirge which speaks volumes for the stellar work the cast and crew have done with it. There were muddled messages and too much left up to the audience to fill in. David Griffiths has done a superb job getting the action moving, keeping things as together as possible and making what is on paper an uninspiring play into a cohesive vision. A few quibbles on the technical front such a few shadows, the audience not realising the play was over and, for the size of the cast, some epically-long set changes. However sound and lighting tightened up these issues with Ashleigh Bushnell and Riki Ramkissoon being on the ball and judging timing nicely.
A huge well done to David and his team. It was wonderful to see something tonally different in the bar and it’s certainly a reminder that BLT should always keep pushing the envelope.