Review - Honour (Park Theatre)

Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour is a tough watch in 2018. The play, which was first performed in 1995, offers a bleak look at the deterioration of a 32 year long marriage between acclaimed journalist George and his writer wife Honour, when George meets and falls in love with ambitious up-and-coming journalist Claudia. 

Katie Brayben and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
Curiously, the play opens on a scene between Henry and Claudia, with the latter interviewing the former about about his career. The scene verves with energy, Henry's life experience feeding Claudia's hunger for success. The audience is instantly endeared the pair, as intellectual equals if not lovers, as they bounce and buffer off each other. So when George returns home and is met by the mundane predictability of his married life, for a split second the audience longs for the sparky dialogue of the previous scene. And in that moment, George's spontaneous rejection of marriage to Honour is signalled and contextualised. It's a nasty trick on Murray-Smith's part, and brilliantly directed by Paul Robinson, it works to drive a partition between the trio at the centre of the play. 

Imogen Stubbs puts on an impressive display of emotional gymnastics as Honour. One of the downfalls of Honour is that it is realistic to a fault, and Murray-Smith has characters mull over the same points, the same arguments, the same heartbreaks, again and again. Yet Stubbs brings so much truth to the titular character, and watching her navigate George's bombshell announcement and reboot her life as a response is extremely empowering.

Imogen Stubbs and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
But Honour isn't just the name of the character at the heart of Murray-Smith's play. It's also the thing which is meditated on heavily throughout. Should George honour his decades long marriage to a wife he has fallen out of love with? Looking at the play in black and white terms, the answer should be a simple yes, but the characters have more nuance than that, and so it's hard to take any character's side. 

Henry Goodman is so annoyingly charming as adulterous George that it's hard to hate him for what he does. At times it seems that even the script is keen to give him the benefit of the doubt and villainise Claudia instead. 

In fact, Honour paints a rather nasty picture of ambition in its female characters. George's wife is put down by others for losing her ambition and settling, and yet Claudia's ambition is so laser focused that she becomes rather two dimensional in her ruthlessness. Whilst Honour's love for George is based on their shared experiences and their history, Claudia seems so conniving and false in her feelings for George that her ruthlessness quickly morphs into her defining feature.

Natalie Simpson and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
You get the sense that if the play was written today Claudia might be at the centre of it, allowing for a more three dimensional study of female ambition in a male dominated profession. Katie Brayben certainly ingeniously moulds the script around the picture of a woman hardened by a sphere which refuses to embrace her ambition, and she radiates a bold addictive energy in every one of her scenes, but there's only so much she can do to humanise Claudia. 

The strength of the cast is what elevates Honour, an otherwise slightly regressive drama. It's a fascinating conversation starter of a play, and the subject matter is still very relevant today, but attitudes have changed in the 23 years since it was first performed, and a fairer exploration of what drives Claudia and George to their affair would elevate the piece enormously.