Honeymoon Suite, Royal Court Theatre, London

Sad and shocking tale of six in a bed

Paul Taylor
Thursday 15 January 2004 01:00 GMT

It looks like a bizarre case of over-booking or a surreal form of time-share. Three couples are simultaneously occupying the eponymous honeymoon suite at a Bridlington seaside hotel in Richard Bean's perceptive and pleasurable new play. In fact, it's the same pair at three different stages of their marriage, and the trick of the piece is that these occasions are superimposed on each other. Caryl Churchill worked with a similar conceit in Hotel, in which no fewer than 16 people, singletons and couples, and all of them unaware of the rest, tried to make themselves at home in the one hired room. The aim there, though, was a kind of abstract opera-cum-dance on the subject of loneliness and repetition.

Bean's objective is more akin to that of JB Priestley or Alan Ayckbourn in one of those time plays that rearrange chronological sequence so as to give us, through temporal dislocation and artful juxtaposition, a keener sense of the emotional consequences of words and deeds. His terrific ear for the salty, gutsy language of the north-east - previously demonstrated in dramas depicting life on a North Sea trawler and on the night shift of a Hull bakery - bestows an earthy comic warmth on the proceedings and ensures that the privileged triple perspective never feels like a heartless, gloating prank at the expense of the characters.

In Paul Miller's deftly orchestrated, beautifully acted production for English Touring Theatre, we see Eddie and Irene as overawed 18-year-old newly weds (Liam Garrigan and Sara Beharrel); as a middle-aged couple (Jeremy Swift and Caroline O'Neill) who have returned to celebrate (if that's the right word) their silver wedding anniversary; and as a long-separated pair in their late sixties (John Alderton and Marjorie Yates), reunited when Irene, now a New Labour baroness and political negotiator, comes back to ask the reluctant Eddie for a divorce.

As their stories interweave, the focus oscillates between a scrutiny of the hairline cracks in the relationship that were there from the start, and the spectacle of the fissures that these later became. Irene may not have thought that she was marrying the middle-aged entrepreneurial fish merchant who tries to kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously taking her away for a romantic weekend and furnishing himself with a nice alibi for an insurance-scam conflagration. But we can see that man latent in the fresh-faced, Brylcreemed young bridegroom who seems to have always misjudged what Irene wanted, overcompensating with dodgy ambition for being less intelligent than her. Their honeymoon in this room, with its crystal chandelier and ensuite facilities ("a bog in the bedroom") was a gift from Irene's father, a trawlerman who paid for it with his life during dangerous Christmas overtime. That, too, established a distorted emotional pattern.

There is never any doubt that Eddie loves Irene with an utter devotion, or that she remains very fond of him. Their valedictory rumpy pumpy at a wry 67 is amusingly easier to achieve than their wedding-night congress. But Irene is complicated and Eddie isn't. "You read too much bloody poetry, that's your trouble," complains his middle-aged self. For him, love is something you can feel, "like a lump, summat you carry around with yer. Bloody hell, it's either there or it i'nt, like a hat." Yet if this conception lacks a certain sophistication, we should not patronise it. His adoration may be simple, but it has a shocking intensity, as we see in the final stage-picture of the 67-year-old Eddie sloshing paraffin around the bed where the newlyweds are at last making love.

To 7 February (020-7565 5000)

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