Honour ★★★★

Perfectly calibrated performances in an inventive reimagining of Joanna Murray-Smith’s 1995 relationship drama

Henry Goodman was last seen playing artist Lucian Freud in Alan Frank’s one-man play Looking at Lucian. In Honour – Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s telling dissection of relationships – Goodman plays George, a respected pillar of the literary community, husband of 32 years of writer Honor, and father of Oxford student Sophie. Director Paul Robinson stages the play in the round on designer Liz Cooke’s versatile set of simple blocks, rearranged by the cast, evoking a boxing ring. It’s a fine metaphor for a drama where almost every scene is a duologue, and many are sparring matches: wife with husband, daughter with father, wife with mistress and more.

No need for a spoiler alert, for it’s clear from the get go that George will end up in bed with Claudia, the bright young thing interviewing him for her series on influential literary figures. Goodman is comically pompous as he searches for words to describe himself to Katie Brayben’s Claudia, settling finally on “award-winning”. There’s comedy too in in his obvious attraction to the apparently confident, knowing Claudia. Brayben and Goodman mine their selfish, self-regarding narcissism to great effect. But this is as much about the insecurity of the ageing alpha literary male as about his infidelity; as much about the insecurity of the clever, attractive 29-year-old Oxford graduate as about her reeling in the older man.

“Middle class girls are all the same. That’s why we have to single ourselves out,” declares Claudia perceptively. But in the light of recent child abuse cases and the #MeToo movement, her words are as disturbing as they are infuriatingly smug when she continues, “I know I’m desirable. I’ve known that since I was 12.” This needs no update to bring the action into 2018. Elsewhere there are witty references to post-truth and Love Island.

All this is before Murray-Smith introduces Honor, George’s writer wife, who has subsumed her own career into his, instead of following up the huge success of her debut novel. Does she get the sympathy vote? George’s simple statement, “I’m leaving” succeeds so well in being kind to be cruel that she cannot take it in. Though you share her pain, Imogen Stubbs’ beautifully nuanced performance is far too subtle to settle for that. She fights back and achieves her own self-realisation and confidence, subtly underlined by her changing out of the grungy monochrome tracksuit bottoms of the comfortable marriage into red and purple technicolour.

She has an ally in daughter Sophie, hugely indignant at her father’s falling for a girl who could indeed be his daughter, but uncompromising in her perceptive reading of the situation: “Is he in love with her? Or out of love with you?” In her righteous indignation she gives her dad a reality check: “Look in the mirror. You’re old! It can’t be passion.” Natalie Simpson’s blazingly feisty intelligent Sophie completes a quartet of exquisite performances that make this drama never less than watchable.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Alex Brenner

Honour runs until Saturday 24 November. 7.30pm, 3pm (Thu & Sat only). £18.50-£32.50, £16.50-£23.50 concs. Park Theatre, N4 3JP. 020 7870 6876. www.parktheatre.co.uk