Review – Harper Regan at the National Theatre

Thursday 24 April 2008

As the Whingers snook out of the Cottesloe the other night Andrew – for once – raised an interesting point: “Perhaps we don’t really like theatre” he mused.

Things are certainly looking rocky. The love-hate relationship with the West End which characterised the Whingers’ giddy heydays seems now to be more like simple bitter enmity.

Perhaps the relationship analogy is the wrong one; maybe it is more like a sport. In which case the score over the last few weeks now stands at Theatre: 4 Whingers: 0. With a record like this, wouldn’t your morale be low?

In fact, Andrew proposed that the review for Harper Regan at the National Theatre should simply read: “Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.”

But to be fair (the Whingers were accused in Sunday’s Observer of not being fair or balanced) we should put the evening into context.

Due to mismanagement of diaries Phil had no idea he was going to the theatre until it was too late and he denied all knowledge of having been consulted. He had had a “lunch” appointment earlier in the day so when he arrived he was (a) slightly miffed at having been wrong and (b) three sheets to the wind.

But checking out the cast list he discovered that his Coronation Street favourite Brian Capron (Gayle Platt’s serial killer ex “You’re Norman Bates with a briefcase”) was in the cast. Things suddenly looked more promising. And you know where that leads.

We could be vitriolic about this one but we really can’t be bothered. We admit defeat. Even John Morrison admitted defeat on this one and he has far more patience, stamina and insight in his little finger than the Whingers possess between them. Even he left at the interval.

Simon Stephens’ play is about a woman called Harper Regan (is there something King Lear thing going on there?) who apparently walks away from her home and daughter to visit her dying father. We say “apparently” because we beat her to it when it came to walking away. We had given her and the play 40 minutes to do something but the opportunity was frittered carelessly away.

We are assured by people who know about such things that the end of the play is very “redemptive” which must be marvellous but we will never know because the first 40 minutes were so unutterably dull. Sadly, the Whingers are very much of the old school when it comes to plays – we believe that an audience should be entertained or intrigued or involved or impressed or engaged or give a damn in some way about what’s going on.

Sadly none of these wishes were granted. The opening scene – in which Regan asks her boss if she can take some annual leave to visit her dying father and her boss says “no” – went on for what seemed like 20 minutes and yet nothing else happened. Her boss ruminated on topics ranging from the Internet to amorality to the East of England.

Very little of any interest happened in the second scene either. Two people talked for a long time, but this time on a bridge. They spoke of going to Birmingham and of engineering.

Yes you heard it correctly – Birmingham! The Whingers could understand people dreaming of going to Moscow, as in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, but Birmingham?

You can tell a lot from a Whinger’s notebook about his level of engagement with a play. Andrew’s now features many notes and calculations relating to the European Working TIme Directive as he questioned the plausibility of Regan not getting the time off (based on the evidence presented in the text). It also featured the note “engineering!?!” as one of the characters asserted that he was studying engineering but found engines overwhelming. Ummm, is that really what they teach in engineering these days? Surely the difference between an engineer and a mechanic is that the mechanic washes his hands before he or she goes to the toilet? Do engineers mess about with engines? What do we know?

When Phil looked at his notes later he saw that he had written “unbelievable dialogue” about three times.

The “What are glaciers?” scene put Phil in a state of near panic fearing they might be slipping into Fram territory.

“Do you want some wine?” received the reply “No, I’m alright” which is just plain daft.

Even worse was to come: “celery’s good for you – tastes nice”. Since when did celery taste nice? And they didn’t even bother to produce a stick for Phil’s food-on-stage thesis; presumably getting an actor to eat the ghastly stuff would have required special dispensation from Equity or possibly a stunt double.

In short, it didn’t push our buttons and we fled.

So do the Whingers not really like the theatre or not? Phil’s conclusion was that they like going to the theatre, it’s just the plays they don’t enjoy.

11 Responses to “Review – Harper Regan at the National Theatre”

  1. Helen Smith Says:

    What a shame you didn’t enjoy it. I’d like to propose a solution to your problem: Head to the theatre as usual, order a drink, chat to the punters in the interval or hobnob with the stars and critics as you normally do. But do not, on any account, go and see the play. Instead, sit and write a florid review based on what you imagine the play might be like. When you have finished writing your review, go home.

    You will soon notice that all your reviews are very kind – after all why else would you have been tempted to buy a ticket in the first place, if you didn’t think you’d enjoy it?

    In a matter of weeks, your faith in the theatre will be restored, with the only restriction on your enjoyment being the limits of your imagination.

    I must admit that financial constraints (rather than a loathing of the theatre) have forced me to try this trick recently. So for example I really wanted to see Fram but instead I read all the reviews and looked at the posters and then stayed at home and ‘saw’ it that way instead. It was really very good.

  2. I think that the general disenchantment of Andrew & Phil is
    shared by many theatre goers-the root of the problem is that
    we are simply going through one of the dreariest,sometimes
    pretentious,boring and uninspiring times in Theatre generally.

    However bad matters may have been in the commercial theatre we could,until the recent past look to adventurous
    and entertaining quality productions,especially during the period
    1980-1996 when we could turn to both the NT &the RSC at the Barbican to come up with something magical and thought provoking season after season in all 3 stages at the NT and
    the main stage and the Pit at the RSC. These were two wonderful powerhouses and beacons setting the pace for the rest of the theatrical world in London and beyond,for example
    who can forget the brave idea of staging Guys & Dolls in the Olivier Theatre and allowing it to be a great success and bring in audiences to the culture palace who otherwise would not have been seen dead within it’s walls.

    I think that the rot set in when the RSC abandoned it’s purpose
    built [but not very user friendly] bunker at the Barbican making only seasonal appearances in London at different theatrical venues which lack cohesion and a sense of “house style”.

    I have attended plays at the NT since 1980 and I regret to
    say that the past 3 or 4 years and with the exeption of “class
    acts” such as last year’s St Joan to have been productions to have been very unmemorable or complete misses,for example the dire adaptation of “a Matter of life & Death” last year.

    This year’s list of productions do not appear to be very awe inspiring and basically very lacklustre,boring except possibly
    with the exception of Vanessa Redgrave’s single hander from
    Broadway which remains to be seen although in my view anything with this great [and at times undervalued] actress
    always “packs a punch” and is worth catching.

    To sum up and by trying to avoid any inverse snobbery or even being elitist [as I feel the Nicholas Hyntner regime at the NT is by the choice of yawn making productions ] it is no wonder that the WEW’s thatrical palates are feeling rather jaded especially when attending yet another dreary production on the South Bank.

  3. Cheer up lads! The critics seem to have liked Harper Regan but with the exception of Toby Young they always stay till the end. So perhaps the second half was more interesting than the first. Overall, however, the NT under Hytner has a good record for picking plays, even new ones. I suspect this one was commissioned rather than coming in through the usual sifting process. Meanwhile I’ve been bowled over by the RSC’s Histories cycle at the Roundhouse. People are stabbed in the front and the back, sometimes simultaneously, which might be not the kind of thing that Andrew and Phil like on their night out, but it’s really memorable stuff.

  4. LesJouesRoses Says:

    The Histories at the Roundhouse are good, but the West End Whingers don’t do Shakespeare. Also, I imagine while they might be persuaded by A Midsummer Night’s Dream or perhaps Twelfth Night, I think that the histories might epitomise all the reasons they decided they don’t like shakespeare in the first place…

  5. I think the problem is that the WEW go to a lot of what they think they *should* be seeing (e.g. lots of the National) rather than looking through the papers for something fun – very surprised, for example that “Black & White Ball” didn’t get a review, and a trip down to Wimbledon for “Eurobeat Almost Eurovision” would have certainly netted a more enjoyable evening than “Fram” (which I am now not bothering with). You guys are putting your money on the line (as are most of us in the blogosphere), so unless you’re getting comps (and not sharing the love) to see things you have doubts on, stick to safer looking options for a week or two and then start reintroducing risks.

  6. Sean Says:

    Gosh, fings ain’t what they used to be guv, when plays had a beginning, a middle and an end. We ‘ad plot in may day too!

    Also, the ‘camp’ whingers should stick to Eurobeat and Cole Porter? well perhaps…..! Brittle and disposable, but good for a night out? (Personally I think excoriating reviews of ‘high brow’ stuff is far funnier; we know what Eurobeat is like, some of us have been for a night out in Blackpool)

    I think Harper Regan has a better second act, and even though I thought the acting and production were very good, I didn’t very much care about our titular character. I though the ending is somewhat ambiguous, not totally redemptive as some have suggested; you don’t know how the husband will really react, what he will do in the future, or what she will be driven to do by the constrictions and obvious tensions in her life, there are clearly huge issues still to be resolved for this family (and I don’t have strong views or involvement with the storyline, it is just a plain observation). I actually liked the first scene; have you ever worked in such stultifying boredom? Had the ring of truth for me! I want to like Stephens’s play (and I have very much admired his other work), but it seems like ‘one damn thing after another’ that has little real depth.

    Imagine the Whingers twittering from the History Cycle at the Roundhouse (of for the more rarefied amongst us, The Courtyard, where I saw the cycle in March), that might be enough to put me off Shakespeare, but also probably laugh rather a lot.


  7. “Also, the ‘camp’ whingers should stick to Eurobeat and Cole Porter? well perhaps…..! Brittle and disposable, but good for a night out? (Personally I think excoriating reviews of ‘high brow’ stuff is far funnier; we know what Eurobeat is like, some of us have been for a night out in Blackpool)”

    Not saying it should be exclusive, but evidence shows the Whingers tend to like short, fun, and tuneful.

    And yes, like Anton Ego says at the end of Ratatouille, writing bad reviews is lots of fun (and reading them is too), but when money’s on the line, why torture yourself?

    I also want a warning if the Whingers do ever take on the History Cycle so I can invest in some distilleries beforehand, given the quantity of plonk they’ll need to get through it.

  8. It is, as it happens, one of those plays where pretty much all the focus and meaning come in the second half. To me, it felt a bit over-familiarly Simon Stephens – a writer whom I like greatly – but I’ll certainly testify to thinking a lot better of it at the end than I was at the interval (during which, for the avoidance of doubt, I drank only the purest spring water, at least that’s what it said on the plastic bottle).

  9. Colin Says:

    I hope the Whingers overcome their crisis and are not put off continuing to brave the incredible tosh filling West End and off-West End stages. I live in LA now, where there is NO theatre to speak of (apart from WICKED which was allowed to break into one place where it’s played for about a century). So I totally depend on their brilliantly incisive reviews to conjure up the sheer life-sapping tedium of sitting through most London shows over the last ten years. Every word brings back cherished memories of both snooze-inducing productions and all the fab things which came with them – mile long queues outside the ladies lavs, seats designed for Victorian midgets, and insanely expensive lukewarm chardonnay poured straight out of a jumbo-sized screw-top bottle into a plastic glass. There’s not a reviewer out there today who captures that true ESSENCE of London theatregoing so magnficently. So please chaps – whinge away.

  10. Ellie Says:

    Ok – i loved this play when i saw it. Maybe i’m just odd, i don’t know. Ok, so the first half wasn’t as good as the second. The second was amazing. Bits of the play you don’t seem to have understood, and you picked holes in the tiniest of things. So what, lots of people like celery. Get over it. I liked the writing and i loved the acting. I really don’t understand your review…it’s pretty crap, to be honest, and the play certainly wasn’t.

  11. Bill Kirby Says:

    I had the misfortune to be dragged along to see this. I have to say it’s quite an achievement to write dialogue that’s simultaneously both prepositions and utterly unmemorable. There’s no turn of phrase here, no wit, just lots and lots of words – and yet none of the characters seem to have anything to say. The production we saw was at a leading acting school. – we’re talking degree level here – and I couldn’t help but think that the play was produced primarily for them to hone their acting craft. If they can do a decent job with this terrible material there’s talent out there, for sure

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