Al Smith’s Harrogate was thought of as the most impressive and engaging piece of writing at the 2015 HighTide festival. It is certainly not difficult to see why this is the case when watching this harrowing, heart-felt and gripping two-hander.

The story follows a middle aged man’s struggle to let go of the past. He is haunted by unnatural feelings towards his teenage daughter and is virtually estranged from his long-standing wife both emotionally and sexually. He craves the past, when his wife was younger, funnier and ultimately more like their teenage daughter is now.

The play is split into three scenes. The first seemingly shows a father and daughter, (Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Ridgeway) having an exchange that feels ordinary and everyday. They’re cute with each other, playful but at times blur the lines of a standard father-daughter dynamic. The whole scene feels a little off and certainly more sexually charged than it should be. Smith is unpredictable with the pace and plotting of the first scene, neatly constructing twists and turns that the audience doesn’t see coming. The next two scenes follow a similar pattern, but with Ridgeway multi-rolling to show the man’s complex relationships with other women in his life

Richard Twyman’s dynamic and captivating direction keeps scenes pacey and natural throughout. Each scene is thoroughly believable, with the uneasiness of the subject left constantly in the background but not laboured upon. There is tension throughout, that is palpable and thrilling. Unfortunately, the scene changes that are clearly designed to echo the play’s eerily unsettling mood, do the exact opposite.  It feels as if they are an under-developed mechanism to disguise a quick costume change for Ridgeway, and hold little relevance to the story or it’s themes.

Smith’s writing fizzes along snappily and the audience are given a surprising amount to laugh at, with lots of topical and relatable jokes. Occasionally it falls into the generic style of a two hander, having to fit a lot of back story into a short amount of time. However, for the most part, it is an incredibly well-constructed text that captures the relationship of the characters and the incestuous subject matter superbly.

Lindsay is measured and tender in his performance as the father. His emotional journey throughout the play is thoroughly compelling, without being forceful or uncomfortable. Ridgeway’s task is a difficult one. Her characters have to be slightly similar in terms of voice and mannerisms due to their relationship, but convince the audience that they are clearly different people. The end product is a superb performance. She is funny, charismatic and heart-breakingly moving when called upon.

Running at a mere 80 minutes, Harrogate is enthralling. It is disconcerting and tense whilst managing to be hilarious and heart-warming at the same time. Smith’s script allows for an emotional and controversial subject matter to become accessible and engrossing.

Harrogate is playing at the Royal Court until October 29. It tours nationally until November 16. 

Tue 1 Nov – 7:30pm
Farnham Maltings

Wed 2 Nov – 7:30pm
artsdepot, London

Thu 3 Nov – 8:00pm
Harlow Playhouse

Fri 4 Nov – 8:00pm
The North Wall, Oxford

Sat 6 Nov –8:00pm
The Marlowe Studio, Canterbury

Thu 10 Nov – 7:30pm
The Garage, Norwich

Fri 11 Nov – 7:30pm
Didcot Cornerstone

Mon 14 Nov – 7:30pm
Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds

Wed 16 Nov – 7:30pm
Cambridge Junction

Photo: Richard Lakos