For decades, the stock sneer at the English novel was that it was preoccupied with "adultery in Hampstead". As a result, no serious novelist will touch the subject with a bargepole, and the angst of NW3's adulterers is left unchronicled. Luckily, Joanna Murray-Smith's play Honour fills the gap. In fact, it started life as a play about adultery in Murray-Smith's native Melbourne; but the location has been shifted to Hampstead to suit UK audiences, and seems to have lost nothing in translation.
The couple at the centre of the action are George (Martin Jarvis), a distinguished journalist, and Honor (Diana Rigg), who was, when young, a celebrated poet, but who gave it up in favour of motherhood and George's career. Their comfortable existence is disrupted by the arrival of the beautiful, ambitious Claudia (Natascha McElhone), engaged in writing a profile of George. Before long, George is telling Honor that of course he still loves her, but he needs more than their marriage gives him, and she's making speeches on the meaning of loyalty.
The great pleasure of the play is hearing how neatly these speeches are turned. Confronting her rival, Honor asks what Claudia thinks will happen when she, too, looks old. "I take care of myself," answers Claudia. "Time takes care of all of us," says Honor, mournfully. The downside is that the speeches don't add up to real people. "We are guilty of liking words more than people," Honor tells George, and it's a charge that could be levelled at Murray-Smith, too.
The characters chuck reproaches, apologies, declarations of passion and epigrams at one another in a mechanical fashion, and the progress of relationships is too pat. The smoothness is ruffled by the daughter, her distress well conveyed by Georgina Rich, but here the dialogue falls into patterns of hesitation and repetition straight out of the Mamet play-writing manual.
Diana Rigg errs on the side of understatement, projecting a warmth and reasonableness you would not associate with her, but not the angst the drama needs. This applies even more to Jarvis, whose movements seem tight, and who shows neither the intelligence nor passion to bring George to life. McElhone gives Claudia a plausibly brittle quality, but is likewise trapped into playing a type rather than a character.
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