Mark Ludmon reviews the revival of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour at Park Theatre
At one point during Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour, journalist and “great thinker” George shows off his erudition by explaining Naturalism, the 19th-century style of fiction and drama that endeavoured to examine domestic life with the forensic scrutiny of a scientist. This could just as easily be used to describe the play itself, currently being revived at Park Theatre, which meticulously unpicks and analyses George’s long marriage to Honor as well as the nature of love itself.
After being together for 32 years, the couple confront the dynamics of their relationship after George falls for an attractive young journalist, Claudia, who is half his age. Without warning, he abandons his wife who, out of love, has put her own promising career as a poet on hold to look after her husband and bring up their daughter, Sophie. The play explores the role of women like Honor within apparently successful marriages and the sacrifices made to support a partner’s career – a topic that remains pertinent despite the play dating back to 1995. It also questions what kind of love binds a middle-aged couple together when the years have rolled on and all passion is spent.
As George, Henry Goodman is a gentle, softly spoken intellectual who finds new life and passion through his new relationship. He wins little sympathy, but most of the laughs, by becoming the kind of older man he once derided as pathetic for running off with a younger woman. Claudia, played excellently by Katie Brayben with ice-cool charm, is a smart, ferociously driven wannabe writer who uses her charisma and sexual appeal to get ahead despite what appears to be a stunning lack of knowledge. She claims to have learned at university how to play the system to get firsts without learning basic concepts in literature or philosophy and, while she may genuinely be drawn to George, her interest turns out to be more in what he can give her in return.
Imogen Stubbs powerfully captures Honor’s devastation at losing the man she loves, undermining everything she once believed in. The impact of George’s desertion is most strikingly seen in an impressive heart-breaking performance by Natalie Simpson as their 21-year-old daughter whose idealised vision of her parents’ perfect love is cruelly shattered.
Sophie’s response is the most touching detail of this revival. While absorbing and tightly directed by Paul Robinson, the play leaves you caring little for the broken marriage, exasperated at Honor’s unrelenting love for this foolish man and rooting for her to move on with her life and realise her own potential. In this respect, it succeeds in penetrating deeply into what motivates the characters but, in so doing, giving us a somewhat bloodless portrait of middle-class lives.
Running to 24 November 2018