There’s no fool like an old fool and silky smooth Times columnist George Spencer, in the grips of a midlife crisis, is the epitome of foolishness.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2003 play, Honour, opened at London’s Park Theatre this week and it is surprisingly relevant to the current #MeToo debate while highlighting a generational division over the question of love and fidelity.
I love this sort of complex relationship drama and it is blessed with a particularly accomplished cast.
I dropped in to Thursday’s matinee along with an audience of mostly mature theatre-goers who were of a similar age to the play’s protagonists – the Spencers.
And there were lines in Smith’s sharply observed dialogue which brought a sudden and audible reaction from the audience who clearly condemned the behaviour of Henry Goodman’s delusional and dishonourable George.
For a split second he looked taken aback at being physically barracked for his condescending and cavalier attitude towards his stage wife of 32 years.
The stalls were appalled at his heartless decision to quit his marriage to Imogen Stubbs’ Honour in favour of a hard, ambitious and manipulative girl less than half his age who had turned his head with flattery.
Well, at least the women were. I think some of the menfolk may have quietly empathised, even been envious, that he’d pulled – or been pulled.
Honour will split audiences with men and women, the old and the young, probably seeing different points of view in this drama which follows a fairly well-trod path.
Here we meet George and Honour. He is a successful journalist, an elder statesman of the profession, an intelligentsia and considered one of the country’s most influential thinkers.
And doesn’t he know it. Smarmy, confident, selfish, George is an egotist who basks in his success.
Honour, more vulnerable, was also a writer and poet, once upon a time.
They made a decision early on in their marriage – no doubt she bowed to pressure from him – that his career was more important, so she concentrated on making a happy home and bringing up their daughter, Sophie.
And the pair built a successful marriage. After a lifetime, their early youthful passion has been replaced with something deeper, more meaningful, more comfortable. It’s a solid, loving and enduring partnership.
What is missing – and what is missing in all four characters in Honour – is the ability to communicate – which is inexplicable for a play about three writers and a Cambridge student. If they can’t find the words who can?
Their inability to form whole, coherent, sentences to communicate their feelings to each other, is noticeable.
Honour opens with George on the receiving end of an interview. Thrusting young journalist Claudia (Katie Brayben) is quizzing him for a book she’s been commissioned to write.
He’s flattered by her attention and fawning even though he’s aware that she’s playing the oldest trick in the book to get a story.
She panders to his towering ego, in the hope of him letting slip an indiscretion to spice up her book, and he laps it up.
Oh George! You’re a walking cliché. How can someone supposedly so clever and worldly-wise be so stupid? He succumbs so easily to the audacity and boldness of her youth.
When she’s gone, Honour and George laugh together over news that one of their friends has left his wife for fling with a young thing…
Claudia clearly has her own agenda. Tenacious, driven and single-minded, she is attracted to George’s intellect and influence and targets the columnist without any care or concern for his wife or family.
She’s patronising when Honour talks about love and marriage, is contemptuous of her values and ideals, and attacks her decision to give up her career for her husband.
If Honour feels threatened by this forthright girl she doesn’t show it.
But, later, 63-year-old George confronts his wife to tell her that he’s leaving her…for 29-year-old Claudia. He doesn’t want a wife any more, he wants passion, youth, something else.
And he’s felt like this for ages but couldn’t tell his wife. Claudia is just the catalyst. Don’t they always say that?
The fallout is nuclear. Honour thinks her husband must be mentally ill. He can’t be serious, can he? Sophie can’t articulate her anger when she confronts both parents.
George starts dressing younger, throwing himself into the affair, but is it love? And is, whatever it is, capable of longevity? More, can Honour emerge from behind her husband’s shadow and find the confidence to start again?
This is an enthralling, thought-provoking and terrifically well acted production.
Stubbs beautifully articulates the fears and insecurities of a middle-aged woman who is cast aside after devoting a lifetime to her husband.
Alright, she’s probably let herself go a bit, slouching around in baggy clothes, her hair a mess, but who doesn’t after 32 years of marriage? Would making more of an effort have made any difference? And what effort has George made?
Goodman, always hugely watchable, gives a powerhouse performance as George. You can’t help but be outraged at his decision to swap true love for fleeting lust. His callousness is breathtaking.
But, at the same time, there is a smidgen of sympathy at the way he is being played by Claudia. In the present climate rich, powerful and famous men are being accused of exploiting their position to seduce naive young women.
Honour surely asks what if the ambitious young things are the protagonists, using their sex and youth to advance their careers?
A great revival from director Paul Robinson and producer Tara Finney.
Honour plays in Park200 at Park Theatre until November 24.
Henry Goodman and Imogen Stubbs are terrific in Honour, a story about a man suffering a midlife crisis and his wife coping with the inevitable fallout.