Diana Rigg isn't just iconic, she's almost allegorical. She is Honour in Joanna Murray-Smith's play about a devoted wife and mother - once a glamorously promising poet - who is being dumped by her husband, Martin Jarvis' George. An august literary editor, he is suddenly smitten by a younger model, Natascha McElhone's pretty and keenly ambitious Claudia, who comes to interview him for a profile.
Translating quite easily from Melbourne to Hampstead, Murray-Smith's scenario has its strengths, especially in portraying the divergent values of two female generations. Even while siding with her mother, Honour's 20-something daughter Sophie - a Cambridge contemporary of Claudia's - can't help upbraiding the older woman for so willingly sacrificing her career and not complaining.
At points, you also have to admire Murray-Smith for so forthrightly tackling emotion and ideas, with head-on debates about passion versus duty and self-determination. Sometimes the arguments are almost Racinian. But at worst, the dialogue sounds like a string of axioms along the lines of "Love Is..." as well as being sub-Albee and -Mamet in its rhythmic use of fractured, reiterated phrases.
Roger Michell's UK première at the National in 2003, with Eileen Atkins and Corin Redgrave, made the play look better. Director David Grindley is normally strong on fine-tuned performances and period accuracies. But Liz Ascroft's set looks deadly here - all dark mahogany - and Claudia's fashion gear suggests here and now while her feminism strikes me as coming from a decade back (which is, indeed when the play was written).
Jarvis's George also has no convincing intellectual gravitas, adopting an artificially deepened voice and striking oddly stiff poses during rows - leaning forwards with both hands fractionally raised, as if singing an aria. McElhone's delivery is, in turn, often nonsensically rushed and her girlish manners look too artificially applied. Rigg, by contrast, has real rounded humanity, a deep strength and splendid cutting humour when Honour starts fighting back, though some may miss the shattered grief that Atkins brought to the role. Ultimately, Georgina Rich, who invests Sophie with fiery anger and vulnerability, is the real find of the evening.
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