Writing wrongs: Honour at the Park Theatre

Saturday 27th October 2018, matinée (preview)

We are always on the lookout for a new play at the Park Theatre, and when we spotted Henry Goodman as one of the cast members of ‘Honour’ we knew we would be in for an entertaining afternoon, especially when we noted that he would be joined by Imogen Stubbs and Katie Brayben, whose star has deservedly risen since we last saw her in Company at the Southwark Playhouse back in 2011.

‘Honour’ is one of those plays whose plot won’t tell you if it’s any good – it’s the story of the breakup of a marriage, a husband going off with a younger woman, and the resulting fallout. It has been compared to Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’, but significantly here the author is a woman, Joanna Murray-Smith. The plot could almost have been chosen for maximum banality, but the story, staged here without any set and barely any props, remains riveting, thanks to a sophisticated exploration of the characters and relationships. The writing is incisive and compelling, and completely unpretentious, and being a revival of a production originally staged in 1995, it has aged very well.

There are just four characters, a husband and wife, a daughter, and the ‘other woman’. The key to the play’s success is that none of them are particularly charismatic or heroic. All have been successful in their own ways, and all have the best of intentions, even as they watch their worlds fall apart. More importantly they are intelligent and articulate, though not particularly self-aware, a powerful combination. Murray-Smith is not really interested in wallowing in emotion or high drama or plot twists, but she weaves a subtle and thoughtful thread of dialogue through situations we might think we already know about, and it is very refreshing and ultimately uplifting.

Henry Goodman gives a well-rounded performance as George, a successful writer who mixes complacency and mild dissatisfaction in equal measure. He starts off the play delivering a hilarious monologue, which seems as first to be some kind of eulogy of a colleague and then turns out to be his attempt to summarise his life for the eager young writer who has come to do a profile on him. He perfectly captures the pompous, vain author anxious not to appear too arrogant, and takes us on a touching journey through his naive attempts to intellectualise his decision to leave his wife, before watching his dreams of a new carefree life crumble as quickly as they had blossomed.

Imogen Stubbs, in the title role, also gives a refreshing take on the ‘wronged wife’. More than a match intellectually for her husband, she finds that he has done her a favour by nurturing a revival of her writing career, giving her both time, space and some new material. In a strong but reserved performance she gives little away, just giving us glimpses of an inner steel which helps her to rise above the stereotype of the woman scorned. Never was there a better embodiment of the motto ‘the best revenge is to live well’.

Katie Brayben gives a quietly terrifying portrait of young ambition as Claudia, the young writer who comes briefly into George’s life and quickly turns it upside down. In a highly skilful performance, she never appears to be manipulative or scheming – she is open and honest about her motives right from the start and manages to cause chaos nonetheless. Determined to love without loss, she realises too late that being loved but unable to love is the ultimate curse. She brings a plausibility and brilliance to the role that makes us think again about love, loyalty and morality.

Natalie Simpson brings refreshing energy which cuts through the abstraction just when we need it – with the judgemental clarity of youth her outbursts are satisfyingly visceral, while her central speech about feeling inarticulate in a family of intellectuals is beautifully and falteringly delivered.

Paul Robinson’s direction is clear and tight and he confidently manages the ‘in-the-round’ format, moving the actors around seamlessly so that everyone gets their fair share of the action. In a set that could feel alienating and cold, he builds a space where emotions run deep and lives are authentically complicated.

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