After its successful debut at HighTide Festival in Suffolk last year, Harrogate - written by Al Smith and directed by Richard Twyman – arrives in London at the Royal Court to kick off its UK wide tour. The one act play, coming in at just over 80 minutes, finds itself perfectly suited to the cosy Jerwood Theatre at the Court. In a rather unique set design, audience members face each other from benches (which are perhaps just a bit too cosy) on either side of the room. The stage itself sits in the middle; a medical-white cuboid running the length of the room, with its two bench-facing sides missing. It’s more reminiscent of a zoo exhibition than a theatre, and being able to see the faces of half your fellow attendees can be rather off-putting, especially when one of them nods off during scene two. We’ll put that down to the humidity in the room, however, because the play and performances from Nigel Lindsay (of Four Lions fame) and Sarah Ridgeway are brilliant.
Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) signals the start of the play. “You can blame me, try to shame me, and still I’ll care for you”, sings Irma Thomas; I love it when a seemingly insignificant song encapsulates an entire piece perfectly. A father is joined in the kitchen by his daughter, whereupon she shows off her new uniform, dodges questions about what she’s learnt in school, and chats about her new job at a carvery. Boring, right? But something is off. Her father happily pours her not one but two pretty hefty glasses of Baileys, even though she’s only 15, and then proceeds to scold her for wearing mascara. Dad knows all his daughter’s favourite GCSE subjects, one of which is Biology. She, however, doesn’t even know what osmosis is. Weirdest of all, their rapport is remarkable. Maybe you were less of an angst-ridden teenager than I was, but the last thing in the world I wanted to do at 15 was relay every detail of my life to my parents. The daughter, on the other hand, revels in it. By mid-scene I’ve decided that Smith simply doesn’t know how to write young characters and I’m dreading the remaining hour in the sweaty theatre. Then, in the last 20 seconds of the scene, it clicks. The whole scene comes together and it’s literally jaw dropping. It’s not bad playwriting, it’s phenomenal playwriting.
The play manages to tackle a subject matter I have seen not seen addressed on the stage with seriousness and grace
The mastery of Harrogate is that it does this more than once; just when I think I’ve got the play figured out it twists again and I’m at a loss, but still desperate to know the truth. To reveal any significant details of the play’s plot would ruin the viewing; suffice to say it’s shocking, and sometimes horrific. Despite this, as the play approaches its finale – and the true nature of events have finally revealed themselves – it’s impossible to want anything other than the inevitable to occur. “Do it” one audience member whispers behind me. It’s edge of the seat viewing. Again, quite literally; I could see them perched across from me.
In scene two Harrogate lose its spark a little. It dithers for just long enough that my eyes wander to the sleeping attendee, and our actors go from dry-eyed to inconsolable crying in the blink of an eye; it’s less than convincing. Similarly, the final moments of acting feel somewhat forced: I read the stage directions, it could have been done better. Someone across the way is even lightly chuckling to themselves at this point, by which time I’ve decided I don’t like the set.
The mastery of Harrogate is that just when you think I’ve got play figured out it twists again
In the end, such minor blips do little to damage what is a brilliantly written play. It tackles a subject matter I have seen not seen addressed on the stage with seriousness and grace, while remembering that to entertain its audience is the most important task. Sadly, Harrogate’s remaining dates at the Royal Court are sold out, but it will be touring the UK throughout November. Having been so well received not once but twice now in the last two years however, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if we see it reincarnated in the capital again very soon.