New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
An old man wearing a fez, taped-up glasses, anorak, old trousers and flip flops without socks comes onto the stage into a hotel suite. He's comfortable with the surroundings and immediately makes his way to a bedside phone. He's seen one of those "driven courteously?" stickers on the back of a lorry and rings the number. He's a bit of a geek. The old man pays no attention when other people emerge.
It soon becomes apparent that Richard Bean's play is an ingenious look at two people in three stages of their life: the honeymoon couple on their wedding night; the pair returning to the same hotel as they celebrate their silver wedding; and the old man's unexpected reunion with his wife in their later years when their lives have changed immeasurably.
Bean expertly weaves together the experiences of the married couple through flashbacks and isn't restricted to chronological order. He reveals hidden sides to the characters as they develop from youngsters full of hope and expectation into mature people who've become either an amazing success or an unmitigated failure.
Honeymoon Suite is set against the decline of the fishing industry in Hull. Irene and Eddie who get married in 1960 want to better themselves: he wants to progress from being a "bobber" who works on the dockside and doesn't make as much money as the fishermen who go to sea, while she aims to live in Kirk Ella, a leafy village which is several steps up from their terraced house that hasn't got an indoor bathroom or even hot water.
George Banks and Natalie Burt give fine performances as the young couple, he a swaggering, cocky, shoulder-twitching teddy boy with a problem controlling his ardour, she a shy, inexperienced girl who's yet to realise that her ambition should stretch to being more than just a good wife.
The problem for me with Honeymoon Suite is that I find it difficult to believe that 25 years later Eddie turns into the man known as Tits. Martin Miller's portrayal is a powerful one, particularly when his attempt to have his failing factory burnt down in an insurance scam that goes tragically wrong. But he just doesn't appear right for the part.
Sherry Baines is a more credible Izzy as she starts to comprehend that her husband is using her for his own questionable schemes.
The stars of this version of Honeymoon Suite are undoubtedly Colin Tarrant, playing the character in his later years who's referred to only as Witchell, and Stephanie Turner as Marfleet who's become a baroness and successful politician.
Tarrant, returning to the New Vic after an absence of more than thirty years, and experienced television actress Turner take to their roles effortlessly, drawing you into their dysfunctional relationship which couldn't survive their changes in personality. Their stage presence is such that I found it difficult not to focus on them when they remained on view even if they weren't part of the action.
Tim Luscombe, who directed blue/orange at the New Vic a couple of years ago, does another fine job of making the most of the theatre-in-the-round's intimacy while designer Lis Evans shows as usual how to produce an impressive set.
You need to read the programme beforehand if you're to appreciate some of the more obscure fishing terms. But on the whole it's a solid, enjoyable production from the New Vic.
It was a pity there weren't more in the auditorium to see it. Maybe the theatre-going public don't trust the management to put on a good show even if they've never heard of the play before. Alternatively the economic downturn is having a real impact in Staffordshire.
"Honeymoon Suite" continues until April 25th
Reviewer: Steve Orme