Park Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
George is a journalist-intellectual, award-winner, amiably vain and sixtyish. He twinkles for England, with much black-rimmed-specs-play, when being interviewed by an ambitious young graduate, Claudia. At home is his wife Honor, laughingly at ease with him, the pair exuding long-accustomed affection and joking about an old friend who has left his wife for a young girl and, ridiculously, goes out clubbing with her (“He’s so old they think he’s a performance artist”). Claudia the interviewer comes to lunch: unsuspicious, Honor talks about their long marriage and how – charmingly – enjoying sex becomes as much to do with memory and “knowing what each other used to be”.
But Claudia is on navel manoeuvres, casually baring a bellybutton in the next interview session, letting her hair hang loose, making her questing intellectual chat daringly intimate. George succumbs. And announces to his baffled wife that he is leaving. So begins the to-and-fro of pain and disillusion, adjustment and remorse. And the play asks hard questions about the primacy of the heart and the usefulness of dull old virtue.
It’s an old story indeed – and an artfully updated 1995 play by Joanna Murray-Smith – but so beautifully performed in Paul Robinson’s austerely set production that it feels very up to date. Its forensic examination of love, exploitation and the male-female balance enthrals, amuses and prods painfully at the emotional culture of today.
Henry Goodman is superb as the donnish George: vain in his early self-possession, defensive in his headlong passion, wounded at last and dryly saddened. Imogen Stubbs is magnificent too as Honor: she has a powerful capacity to portray love’s huge pain yet hold within it a kind of surprise: her finely timed humour hits hard at moments, and in extremis she can kick the furniture over with whirling force.
As for Katie Brayben as Claudia, she is suitably dismaying in her icy, juvenile intellectual ambition and her very modern feminist ruthlessness: she sees no problem in luring a husband from a woman she considers less worthy because of her loyal wifeliness and lesser career. She is brutal: not so much MeToo as the MeFirst . Her worship of her own sexual allure is coldly selfish, and she snaps “I don’t plan to give up anything for anyone”.
In sweet softer contrast to her damaged cleverness is the daughter of the wrecked marriage, Natalie Simpson’s Sophie: defiantly furious with her father, accusing her mother, then crumbling at the loss of safe familial warmth.
There are good laughs, not least the gloriously predictable moment when George rashly criticises Claudia’s writing for lack of nuance, and when she is horrified by his boyish dream to sail round the world with her instead of being a power-couple. But at the play’s heart is the question even she finally understands enough to ask. Why against fairness, loyalty and gentler loves, does passion think it can take precedence?
box office 0207 870 6876 to 24 nov