At the centre of Joanna Murray-Smith’s ‘Honour’, which is getting its first London revival in 15 years at the Park Theatre, is a question that niggles in all romantic relationships: why do we believe that ‘following our heart’ is automatically good?
The Australian playwright explores the emotional wreckage left after George (Henry Goodman), an acclaimed journalist, leaves his wife of 32 years, Honour (Imogen Stubbs), for Claudia (Katie Brayben), an ambitious younger writer.
Murray-Smith shines a light through the prism of this situation to an almost exhausting degree, as characters debate or rue their life choices like they’re preparing a treatise. The first half, in particular, is a bit of a slog. In the same way as the narcissistic George (a suitably velvet-tongued Goodman) tries to reimagine his predictable midlife crisis as some kind of chain-breaking liberation, this play possibly thinks it’s more profound than it really is.
Katie Brayben makes Claudia initially properly obnoxious, with her certainty that she understands everyone better than they do themselves. Her character arc is central to the play’s premise: that life and love exist between truth and choice, between the spoken and the unsaid, but the impact of this is muffled by her blatant use as an emotional plot device.
Where the play hits its mark is with Sophie, George and Honour’s daughter. Unlike her parents, she’s self-confessedly not articulate. But her angry promise to her father that she’ll never let any husband leave her in his wake as he has done to her mother, is a powerful moment. Natalie Simpson’s raw delivery stings.
Paul Robinson’s production has a breathless, hyperbolic pitch, with almost every character on the verge of throwing themselves off a metaphorical cliff. Robinson moves them like chess pieces around the wave-like sweep of Liz Cooke’s in-the-round set, as they howl in pain at each other. It’s an existentialist telenovela.
Imogen Stubbs grabs hold with both hands and rides this rollercoaster. Her performance as Honour – a skilled poet who put her career on the backburner for her marriage – turns lines into triumphant punchlines. It’s an excessive, almost hammy turn at times, but it breathes a kind of fire into all the stodginess.