The first rule of improvisation is ‘always agree’. If the other onstage actor says she’s just come back from school, you take it as truth and respond accordingly. If she starts telling a story about her Spanish teacher, it’s quite certain you’re now playing the parent. If she reveals your spouse has been having an affair, you’d better come up with an appropriate reaction pretty quickly. You don’t contradict, otherwise you break the illusion and the scene dies. It’s all about working together to create a common imaginative world. The result is always interesting, sometimes funny and, every now and then, compelling.
Harrogate is compelling, precisely because it ignores this rule. It is a scripted play in which the characters are constantly improvising, yet threaten to break the illusion at every turn. Having garnered critical attention at the 2015 Hightide Festival, it was picked up by the Royal Court for a limited run earlier this year. During its tour around the country, it was performed at the North Wall Arts Centre earlier this month. It is an immensely well-written break-through play, and announces its writer, Al Smith, as an exciting theatrical voice for the future.
The play starts with a father (Nigel Lindsay) and his fifteen-year-old daughter (Sarah Ridgeway). The opening scene sees him quizzing her about school and her boyfriend. But something is off. He seems slightly too overbearing and dictates the terms of the conversation — she is too flirtatious and mature for her age. One early moment is particularly revealing: she asks, ‘Are you asking or telling?’ and his reply is ‘I don’t know’.
It soon becomes clear, to the audience’s shock, that this entire scene is actually an improvisation, a complex role-play within the play itself. With the help of this woman, who is young enough to convincingly play his daughter and yet old enough to be a possible romantic partner, the man is acting out possible scenarios he imagines he might encounter with his actual daughter. It turns out that the woman, on the other hand, visits the man every week in order to ‘play’ his daughter (and in the final scene, the mother), and is schooled by him in how to portray her convincingly. There is the suggestion that they are both engaging in a form of drama therapy. He might be preparing himself for real-life in order to overcome the anxieties of being the father of a teenager. She seems to be rendering him a service of some kind, but strangely enough there is no suggestion of payment; she appears to need him as much as he needs her. Yet the true reason for their engagement in this improvisation is left tantalisingly ambiguous — at least until the understated, yet shocking, dénouement, when the truly sinister nature of the arrangement is made clear.
Smith’s writing is beguiling, constantly shifting, and at times outright deceptive. It forces the audience to question who the characters are playing at regular intervals. The ‘daughter’ returns in the next scene, followed by the ‘mother’ in the final scene, but the shift between the woman and the character she’s playing in the improvisation is fluid and almost imperceptible. It is subtle, ambiguous writing of the highest order. It loves to wrong-foot the audience and relishes in the liminal space, asking where exactly one character starts and another begins, and what constitutes acting. Yet despite its meta-theatricality, the play doesn’t wear its artifice on its sleeve. What continued to strike me was how thematic threads and motifs only started to reveal themselves after longer reflection.
Richard Twyman, who this month takes over as Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre, directed the play with subtlety, grace and economy. He is perfectly attuned to the play’s concern with power, control, and acting. You can sense the minor modulations in mood and how the power dynamics shift from moment to moment. It is a sensitive and careful interpretation of the play, no doubt grounded in attentive textual and character work in the rehearsal room. Tom Piper’s design, a cross-section of a room, completely white, is stark and forbidding, and works perfectly with Twyman’s vision. It deflects attention from the reality of the setting onto the actors, how they navigate their improvisations, how they attempt to control each other. Reviewers such as Michael Billington and Chris Bennion have drawn attention to the Pinteresque quality of the play, but I’d point out how the design recalls Ivo van Hove’s stark and unremitting 2014 production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic. The two plays deal with similar territory — sexual jealousy, control and loveless marriage — even if the way they approach these ideas is very different.
Nigel Lindsay was on characteristically strong form, perfectly capturing the compromised masculinity of the middle-aged father. With his impressive physical presence and imperturbable expression, he conveyed a man who could hold his own in a board meeting, but who in his personal life is racked by sexual and emotional insecurities. There was a heart-wrenchingly touching moment at the centre of the play in which the two characters broke out into quiet sobbing at different ends of the room. Lindsay was masterful in his control of detail as he portrayed a man composing himself after an unwanted emotional outburst; he wiped his eyes and slowly rubbed the tears onto the back of his trousers before, with a quick, nervous scratch of the head, he returned to his wall-like expression. But Sarah Ridgeway shone through even more with a brilliantly subtle performance, straddling the borderline between characters with impressive skill. It was a pleasure to see an actor with the talent to convince not only that she is playing a character, but that her character is also playing a character, and allow the audience to hold in mind both these levels at once.
Harrogate left me with the pleasurable buzz that comes from having to pick your way through the thicket of unanswered questions as you return from the theatre. There was a flurry of excited debate among the younger members of the audience when the lights came up. But when it came to delivering the all-out emotional punch I expected the play wasn’t able to deliver completely. Perhaps it is to do with its triptych structure, or the distancing effect of the characters’ role-playing. To an extent, the strength of the production was its restraint, its tentativeness, but I still think certain moments could have been pushed further without breaking out into melodrama. In any case, Harrogate can grip the attention like few other plays written today.
Harrogate is touring until the 16th November. For more information about upcoming events at the North Wall, please visit their website.