Preview: Harrogate

Jungmin Seo 25 February 2019
Image Credit: Harrogate via Facebook

“Make-up remover wipes?” “Check”. “Baileys?” “Check”. “Report cards?” “Check”. “iPhone 6?” “Check”. As I sit facing the minimalist monochromatic set for the Week 6 production Harrogate at the Corpus Playroom, eavesdropping on this rapid-fire exchange between Prop Team and director, I am intrigued by the seemingly random yet strangely specific assortment of items. What are these objects for, and who owns them? “It’s a play about control and manipulation”, I remember director Issy Snape saying in our brief chat before the full dress-rehearsal. I wonder whether this is being echoed in the obsession with possessions.

And as the first scene unfolds before me, this casual curiosity develops into something much more insistent: I am determined to disentangle the elliptical dialogue between the male and female leads – to find an explanation for the unsettling dynamic between them. Anna Wright plays “Her” and George Solomou “Him”; these abstract identities teeter between the faintly recognizable and the uncomfortably impenetrable. There’s some form of a familial relationship – what Wright describes as a “mutual fascination” – at play here, but it is so warped and layered that it eludes immediate interpretation. I could see exactly what Snape meant when she explained her first encounter with Harrogate at the Royal Court Theatre back in 2016, which inspired her to bring it to Cambridge: “It was such a fascinating and engaging piece of theatre … a brilliant play … partly because of how it unravels, and how it manipulates us to think one thing, only for that to reveal something else”.

It is clear that she relishes this “brilliant directorial opportunity” from the infectious passion that she emanates as we talk about the upcoming show. “Not only does it feature two actors, but there are also just three scenes. It’s very intense: George and Anna are basically on stage for 80 minutes straight.” When I am joined by Solomou and Wright, they too are keen to share their experiences from behind the scenes. “It’s been great fun but it has been a challenge”, says George, with a frank laugh. But from his sustained dramatic presence during the rehearsal, it is hard to believe that this is his two-hander début. Harrogate is Wright’s second, but she too admits that “it’s terrifying, because you have to go out and understand that you are 50% of the show”. She adds, however, that “it’s nice to know that you can still rely on each other – the other actor on stage has your back”. Moreover, the small scale of the piece has enabled Wright, Solomou, Snape and assistant director Angus Jackson to have “conversations about just one line, based on the different interpretations that we each came up with, which we simply would not have had time for in a bigger production”.

Jackson tells me that the play has been in the making since Week 2, which might explain the incredible intricacy, the seamless scene-shifts and the persistent dramatic flair of this dress-rehearsal. Following Snape’s charismatic warm-up routine, Solomou and Wright slip effortlessly into character. Every once in a while, a missed line leads to a short burst of giggles, but the actors immerse themselves back into Harrogate with an admirable ease. I am particularly struck by the relaxed professionalism that is unique to this team of young dramatists. They genuinely enjoy the process of perfecting the pitch of their delivery, concocting the ideal creamy-chocolatey hue of the non-alcoholic Baileys, and dissecting every sentence in the script. Rehearsals just look like so much fun. As Solomou puts it, “Considering the content that this play covers, it has been a great laugh”. Snape goes even further, saying “I think I’ve laughed more than I have in any other production”.

The Telegraph describes Harrogate as a “play that defies interpretation”. Snape argues that “as the director, and with Anna and George as actors, certain decisions had to be made about the multitudes of ways that things could be played. For the audience members, though, there is a huge scope of interpretation”, to which she modestly adds “I would hope”. Above all else, Snape wants her audience to interrogate what they have just seen – to “turn to the person next to you after the curtains close and reflect on what happened in the beginning, and then take that conversation with you to dinner”. It’s the same for Wright and Solomou: when they are asked what most excites them about finally performing their show to the public, they pounce upon “audience reactions!”

There’s not really another way to put this: quite simply, Harrogate is a must-see. So I’m just going to continue with my own ‘prop-checklist’. “Engrossingly disturbing?” “Check”. “Unnervingly funny?” “Check”. “An expertly executed two-hander?” “Double check”.

Tickets for Harrogate are available here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/harrogate/