Honour, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review

What is it about facing death that makes a man turn to a tanning salon?
---- George
Diana Rigg as Honour
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
When Eileen Atkins won the 2004 Olivier Best Actress award for Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour at the National Theatre's Cottesloe in 2003, the play was commended for some outstanding acting. I did see it late in the run, though not to review, and it was intimately staged on a traverse with a small audience raked either side of the playing area. I liked it tremendously. We were close enough to see every wrinkle and crow's foot on an actor's face. Honour then struck resonance with me because I was going through a divorce after more than thirty years of marriage. Seeing the play in 2006, with me over the worst of the divorce, the play seemed less funny and less relevant. From Row M in the stalls at Wyndham's, too far back to see much facial expression, Honour struck me as a rather mundane, marital, mid-life drama. Of course some plays (and musicals) only have one viewing in them before they start to pale, but for most of the audience, this doesn't matter as once is the only opportunity they will have to see most modern dramas.

So why does this seem such a lacklustre production when it stars the great Diana Rigg? Rigg plays Honour, the eponymous heroine of the play, a woman in her sixties whose husband George (Martin Jarvis) leaves for a much younger model, Cambridge graduate Claudia (Natascha McElhone). It is partly to do with the acting of Martin Jarvis and Natascha McElhone. Jarvis seems so mundane as actually not to be a loss but rather a tedious liability to any woman, which could explain Rigg's lack of emotion when told he was leaving. Underplaying maybe, but this comes over as couldn't care less and destroys the central point of the play which has to be the journey Honour makes from deserted wife to a woman comfortable in her own skin with achievements of her own in later life. We have to believe that Honour initially thinks she is worse off. I remember clearly the transformation that Eileen Atkins as Honour made in the final scene when she has regained her writing career and her self esteem, but although Rigg has a costume change, the effect is much flatter. Jarvis too made little of George's final realisation of what he has lost in ending his marriage to Honour.

The beautiful Natascha McElhone plays the expedient career girl using George's celebrity as a stepping stone to fulfil her own ambition but she seems oddly stiff and uncomfortable in the role. Also there is no sexual frisson between her and Jarvis' pedestrian George, again begging the question that what is such a beautiful and clever girl doing with an old man? I know that fame is meant to be sexually alluring but at no point does George seem remotely interesting. Only Georgina Rich as George and Honour's daughter, Sophie raises the involvement factor in her scenes as she shows anger at the parental split. There was a loud audience groan when George explains to Honor that it was his labours which had provided the family assets.

Liz Ascroft's set is a solid and expensive study with fine mahogany antique bookcases and to the rear antique chairs, fifty or more of them -- I've really no idea why? At Cottesloe I was occasionally distracted by the mirror image of audience opposite me, whereas here all the set piece chairs are empty. Is this significant?

I know that theatre lacks good parts for women in their sixties but we have many great actresses in this age group who, we are told that we are ten years younger than their mother's generation were at the same age. Please, please can someone write a brilliant play for Diana Rigg so that London theatregoers can see her in her prime?

Elyse Sommer reviewed Joanna Murray-Smith's play in New York. For her 1998 review go here Incidentally New York's journalist Gus was renamed Literary Editor George for the London market. The play also had a run last year in Los Angeles which was reviewed by Laura Hitchcock. To read that review
go here.

Written by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by David Grindley

Starring: Diana Rigg
With: Martin Jarvis, Natascha McElhone, Georgina Rich
Design: Liz Ascroft
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Original Music: Simon Slater
Running time: One hours 35 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0870 950 0925
Booking to 8th April 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th February 2006 performance at the Wyndham's Theatre Charing Cross Road, London, WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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