Royal Court Theatre 20-29 October, National Tour 1-16 November. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Transferring to the Royal Court after an acclaimed run at HighTide Festival 2015, Harrogate is a fascinating, tricksy play that throws curveballs at the audience constantly, never settling for easy and comforting resolutions.
The play begins with a man chatting to his daughter about her friends and her trip to Leeds. At the end of the scene, when things are becoming very uncomfortable, the truth is revealed, which amplifies the squirm factor for the rest of the play. I won’t go into details about the plot, because this tightly written and compelling play is best seen without too much prior knowledge.
The themes Harrogate explores are familiar – the longing for the past, the growing invisibility of women as they age, the evolution of love in long term relationships, the sexualisation of teenage girls – but Al Smith mixes these together to create a wonderfully painful and funny exploration of one man’s struggle to hold everything together. Throwaway lines from earlier scenes suddenly have great meaning, and repeated dialogue with different women highlight the differing perceptions and acceptance of age. The speech patterns of the three women are markedly different, but during pivotal emotional moments, they merge into one eloquent voice, that jarred at first when used by the teenage daughter, but served to emphasise the blurred boundaries of the father’s mind.
Nigel Lindsay gives a masterful performance as Him. Before you realise what is going on, he appears manipulative and controlling, but as the play progresses, the initial hints of vulnerability and his inner struggle to restrain himself become clearer. But Lindsay never overdoes the angst, keeping his character neutral and slightly irritating – ever so British and just carrying on. That is apart from the scene changes – the noisy electronic effects as he spasms probably represent his fracturing resolve, but only tested my patience and I saw no need for these – my only complaint about Richard Twyman’s assured direction.
Sarah Ridgeway plays the three female characters with consummate ease. By simply adjusting her stance and intonation, she defines the characters without having to signpost their (slight) differences. Her portrayal of the daughter, all wannabe Gangsta and teeth sucking, is fantastically funny, contrasting beautifully with the horror of realisation as the mother – subtle and heart-breaking.
Harrogate is a wonderful play – hard to categorise and taking an uncompromising look at what lies beneath the most respectable of facades. Thought provoking, squirm inducing and very witty, Harrogate is a play you NEED to see.