The relationship between middle-aged men and their daughters seems to be in the news at the moment, which means that Al Smith's excellent and unsettling new play may turn out to be more topical than he intended.
Disturbing and ambiguous, Harrogate is a cracking 90-minute two-hander, staged in a tiny venue in Aldeburgh as part of the Hightide Festival. I have rarely been so keen to go back and read a play text as I was at the end of this performance. It's an elusive drama which hides its clues carefully, perhaps even a little too carefully.
Because I know the author, I wasn't planning to write anything about this play; but I changed my mind as I went away from the Pump House on Saturday evening, impressed by the quality of the production and hoping it quickly finds the bigger audience that it richly deserves.
Director Richard Twyman and designer Tom Piper have set the play on a pure white traverse stage, sparsely equipped with a minimalist selection of furniture -- two chairs and a cupboard. Realistic signposts are deliberately excluded, and the two characters are listed as Him and Her.
The first of the three scenes is the trickiest to latch on to, and I confess I only understood it fully after seeing the other two. A middle-aged man is talking to a girl in a new school uniform he has paid for, who appears to be his daughter. Though she addresses him as Dad, and speaks about Mum, all is not quite as it seems. Why is the man always prompting the girl to tell him things that she should know? Why is there such a distance between these two people? I jumped to the mistaken conclusion that this was a divorced dad seeing his daughter on a rare access visit, until the dialogue began to point in a less innocent direction. The girl talks about school and her best friend Carly, but her stories seem strangely scripted and her behaviour doesn't quite seem to be that of a fifteen-year-old.
'You stayed at a bed and breakfast in Harrogate,' the man says. 'I followed you'. Something obsessive is being revealed here, even if we are still a little unsure who the man is talking to. He wants the girl to buy new shoes, to use a different mobile phone, and to use her left hand instead of her right. 'I thought you might fuck me this week,' the girl says as she departs.
Scene two shows the man with his real daughter, behaving even more obsessively and again forcing her into confessing details of her private life as a means of exerting control through intimacy. And scene three shows the man with his wife of 29 years, persuading her to pretend to be his daughter by wearing her clothes.
Nick Sidi plays the man with a frenetic edginess, making him a deeply unsympathetic figure, a control freak who has transferred his sexual desire from his ageing wife to his daughter. He is excellent, but the evening belongs to Sarah Ridgeway, who delivers three mesmerising and subtly different performances. She turns herself into three quite different people, but in all three incarnations she is the same object of the man's obsession.
This play has a Pinteresque quality; the adjective is over-used, but Harrogate's elliptical style and its exploration of the way we project our characters on to other people to control their behaviour means that no other word will do. There's no real resolution at the end of the play in the sense of a neat and tidy ending, but what has been revealed means that none of the relationships in this dysfunctional triangle can ever be the same again.
I think this is a much better play than the only other recent Hightide production I have seen, Anders Lustgarten's Lampedusa. As a two-hander (the most difficult format in theatre) it outshines Nick Payne's recent hit play Constellations. Smith writes dialogue which really sings, and is loaded with subtext. Above all, it makes the audience work hard to understand what is really going on, rather than overloading the speeches with exposition. By the end of the play both wife and daughter know a lot more about the husband/father than they imagined; but there are still untold secrets which the first scene has shown us, of which they still have no inkling. Dramatic irony of this sort sometimes creates a better ending for a play than a traditional twist or denouement.