Don’t be misled by the Neil Simonesque title: “Honeymoon Suite” is perhaps most succinctly described as the best play Alan Ayckbourn never wrote. The honors on this occasion instead go to Richard Bean, the northern English dramatist and Royal Court semi-regular who this time is repped at the Chelsea address by an English Touring Theater production. (A post-Court tour was scrapped as the result of a fraud case that has thrown ETT’s finances into a tailspin.) But whereas Ayckbourn might give you one couple as seen sequentially at three pivotal moments over the course of their failed marriage, Bean more bravely allows the various versions of this single partnership onstage all at once. The result may evoke thoughts of a nonsinging “Follies,” Yorkshire-style, insofar as Bean is investigating the most timeless of themes: the effects of time, as youthful enthusiasm is here seen quite literally to burn out.
Although the play may seem entirely domestic, Bean’s latest makes a cunning companion piece to his last Court entry, the dazzling “Under the Whaleback,” which told of a Hull trawlerman at three distinct points in his life. In that go-round, the emphasis was on work, whereas “Honeymoon Suite” has an inevitably more hormonal edge.
But as before, this is a writer with an unusually keen ear for the often unspoken stresses of class tension, romantic friction and beguiling human comedy. Even better, Bean can shape semi-poetic arias of the sort usually not found in such texts, starting with an eleventh-hour account of the decline and fall of an (unseen) French baker so resonantly told that it would seem to merit a drama all its own.
Instead, Bean’s focus couldn’t be more English, with the regional patois, and accents to match, likely to make “Honeymoon Suite” somewhat tricky going for casual visitors to London. Others will likely find rewards in the language that are amplified time and again by Paul Miller’s expert production.
Watching the play, one is reminded of the oft-quoted thespian adage about not bumping into the furniture. The clear challenge here is for the three sets of actors not to bump into one another as each duo pursues its parallel course of action oblivious to the others, even though all six of the top-drawer thesps are onstage more or less throughout.
First to arrive is the oldest of the three Eddies, a shambolic figure (played by John Alderton) who stumbles his way into the same seaside hotel suite that, nearly half a century earlier, he occupied with his since-estranged wife, Irene, who all these decades later has agreed to meet him in order to seek a divorce.
While Eddie awaits the woman who now outranks him — the senior Irene (Marjorie Yates) has gone on to become a high-powered government minister and a baroness — a key turns in the door and in come the young, sexed-up Eddie (Liam Garrigan) and his sweetly bookish bride, Irene (Sara Beharrell).
Having recovered through sheer athletic determination from a severe childhood case of polio, this Eddie has had the hots for Irene from age 10 or 11, and the ardor is repaid, in between Irene’s immersion in “The Grapes of Wrath” and her tendency to put right both his grammar and his fondness for expletives. (“Don’t swear; we’re being posh,” she notes, her corrective shot through with real affection in newcomer Beharrell’s delightful perf.)
The couple in middle years get perhaps slightly shorter shrift, though even there, one sees full well that the honeymoon suite is by no means the coastal “fairy castle,” shimmering chandelier and all, that it is at one point described.
Played by Jeremy Swift as a kindred spirit to the hapless husband he portrayed in the revival of Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party,” Eddie on his golden wedding anniversary is a likable schemer caught up in an insurance scam gone wrong.
And it’s only one measure of the divide between the pair that the incipiently adulterous 43-year-old Irene (Caroline O’Neill) is both disapproving of her husband’s plot and the one of the two who is smart enough to see a way through it.
Eddie, it seems, is all acquisitive ambition as against his wife’s savvy and brains: Does that doom their relationship? Not entirely, as the story of the 67-year-olds bears out, which includes one of the few truly moving sexual encounters I have ever seen onstage involving two no-longer-buff characters whose needs nonetheless make the heart bleed.
Not even Ayckbourn, astute though he is, would include this play’s fascinating social backdrop, in which the changing ways of an entire fishing industry — the same world in which Irene’s “deckie” father moved — can be felt impinging on more practical matters of the bedroom, like Irene’s insistence that the young Eddie purchase condoms and then wear two at once, since she doesn’t want to become a mother nine months after her wedding night.
Bean gets right some delicious running gags, including the slim, boyish Eddie’s desire for a catchphrase to see him through his business life that, we come to see, has rebounded embarrassingly on his far portlier middle-aged self, known to his workmates as “Tits.”
But the details always serve a larger if never overinflated study in the sorrowful effects of time that induces precisely the “happy tears” of which “Honeymoon Suite” speaks.