A middle-aged, middle-class couple – he a towering figure in journalism, she a writer who’s not published for decades – appear to have a comfortable, rock-solid marriage. Then along comes a bright, beautiful, ambitious writer half his age, to interview him for a book.
What happens next will surprise no one: he leaves his wife for the younger woman. What’s more surprising is that this 1995 play by Australian writer Joanna Murray-Smith is being revived: although brought up to date with a sprinkling of 2018 references, from bitcoin to Brexit, the story feels old-hat.
Murray-Smith does smartly clash two strains of thought on love and sex in a marriage: for the wife, ‘passion is partly knowing who the person used to be’; for the husband, ‘history kills passion’. But while there are wincingly sharp lines throughout, they rarely sound as if they come out of the mouths of real people.
Under Paul Robinson’s direction, the three sparring wordsmiths come across as either improbably insightful or just mind-bogglingly insensitive.
Who manages to be epigrammatic when seized by lust or rage? And compliments clang rather than seduce; if anyone told me I had a ‘ravishing mind’, I’d laugh in their face rather than fall into their arms.
In fact, the truest emotions are found at moments of inarticulacy; the couple’s academically underachieving daughter (Natalie Simpson) perceives herself as lacking, but at least she can feel something.
The cast, to their credit, often peel back the skin of the characters to find something raw. If Henry Goodman seems a bit too pathetic even for the midlife-crisis-ridden George, Katie Brayben plays driven young lover Claudia with an acidity and focus that burns.
Imogen Stubbs is the ditched wife Honour, a self-scarifying martyr who learns to value herself again. She’s the most fully fleshed, and Stubbs is warmly watchable even as Honour watches her life fall apart. She also finds some ease within Robinson’s choice to stage the play in the round.
Liz Cooke’s cloud-coloured set is bare except for a few boxes. But this play is so specifically situated in a world of middle-class houses stuffed with books and wine that it seems a bit lost without all that.
As do the actors, who tramp about the stage, occasionally kicking boxes, but clearly more driven by sightlines than character motivation.