George (a revered columnist) and Honor (a successful writer) have been happily married for thirty-two years. Perfect partners, they have a flawless comprehension and perception of each other – until an assertive young female journalist (‘profiling’ George for a book) intentionally sets out to destabilise that understanding, with devastating consequences.
In the preshow publicity, director Heather Bradford has said: “Honour surveys the emotional terrain of a familiar story and considers how power shifts in disrupted relationships. It shows that the consequences of an impulsive act can be interpreted in different ways. Joanna Murray-Smith’s sharp, quick-witted dialogue will give you an unflinchingly clear portrait of marital crack-up.”
What she doesn’t say, but what becomes evident very quickly indeed, is how powerfully, convincingly and poignantly those devastating consequences are portrayed by the small cast on the Chesil’s intimate stage. Bradford promised an “absorbing evening of drama which challenges notions of honour, loyalty, the sense of decency and the belief that love will always prevail” – and the quartet of Rachel O’Neill (Honor), Marcus Whitfield (George), Harriet Taylor (journalist Claudia) and Jamie Craker (daughter Sophie) all deliver this with panache.
With O’Neill and Whitfield’s additional experience perhaps giving them an extra edge over their younger counterparts, each are excellent in their own way with moments where they shine, each vividly bringing to life and carving out distinct, rounded personalities, not all aspects of which are favourable; you can see every nuance of the characters’ thought process subtly reflected in their facial expressions, with every move and gesture full of intent and purpose. Diction is exceptional so that even when the volume is dropped, every word is clearly heard. As well as the dynamics, the pace is excellent, with actors not afraid to cut across each other as the script demands, or have well-timed pauses, so that the narrative flows. Bradford has brought out the very best in each performer and her staging is brilliant. Stage business is well designed, directed and executed, adding an additional visual aspect to the forceful dialogue.
The play itself is very hard-hitting, with liberal use of very strong language (totally understandable with the raw, passionate emotions on display) and adult themes that mean the play is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended, but the performances are so powerful and full of intensity that the audience on opening night were totally engaged and absorbed by the action and narrative; the audience were murmuring to each other, with sharp intakes of breath, gasps with shock at something expressed, or approval of the women’s collective spirit and fight.
And it is collectively the women who are central to this play – not actually the sole male character. It seems very evident to me that this is written by a female playwright, as it is very much from a female perspective, with the three women defiant, strong, self-sufficient and dominant to varying degrees and at different stages. George comes across in the end as being the weaker and more dependent character, with Honor, Sophie and even Claudia developing and progressing more fully through their characters’ journeys.
The set is very well designed and painted, creating two distinctive living rooms and a third more neutral location, with the simple yet effective lighting focused to show the demarcations in the performance area, although additional care needs to be taken to make sure that all the actors stay in the light (the only really significant drawback on opening night). A good choice of appropriately atmospheric music covers the scene changes, which are smoothly done by the cast in very subdued lighting, so that they are already in position and motion as the lights come up on the new scene – another sign of Bradford’s expert direction.
Although on opening night there were one or two hesitations and technical glitches, I’m confident that these are one-offs. A review is essentially one person’s perspective and opinion of one performance. I think the nature of this play reinforces that more than perhaps the performances themselves – it is feasible that every member of the audience’s viewpoint will be affected by their own life experiences and perceptions to the subject matter, although the majority tonight seemed to be more empathetic to Honor’s position than any of the other characters. My recommendation would be to grab one of the few remaining tickets for this play and make your own assessment.
Performances continue from Monday 19 – Saturday 24 November; 7:45pm each evening with 2:30pm Saturday matinee.