David Mamet is rightly famed for his heightened use of the demotic of the streets, bars and workplaces, totally convincing, if not strictly realistic, ferocious, frightening and very funny. In Boston Marriage he deliberately subverts all expectations by writing for an all-female cast in stylised formal dialogue, 19th century middle-class America filtered through the balanced periods of Oscar Wilde. He is even old-fashioned enough to construct the play in three short acts, though Acts 2 and 3 continue without an interval at Scarborough.
The ideas are undoubtedly clever. This form of playwriting is artificial, so why not underline the artifice by clanging descents into modern slang? In a world of boons begged, reticules and barouches, we suddenly find things going pear-shaped or modern obscenities soiling the genteel lips of the ladies. Witty phrases abound: reminding her friend that she is no longer young, a lady elegantly enquires whether she has decided to repeal the calendar. The falseness of the language echoes the falseness of the ladies’ lives. This is all done with consummate skill, but sadly the concept doesn’t work.
Things begin promisingly in Chris Monks’ production in the McCarthy Theatre. Tim Meacock’s splendid designs instantly recall a world where the chintz was cheerful and the aspidistras still flew. Anna is revealed reclining on her chaise longue while Claire poses elegantly in the doorway; through brittle, elliptic dialogue the situation gradually becomes clear. Whilst these two ladies, partners in a Boston Marriage (an intimate, non-sexual relationship), have been apart, Anna has enjoyed the advances of a male protector (and has gained the financial clout to go with her undoubted breeding) and Claire has fallen in love. The motor of the plot is that Claire has arranged to meet her scandalously young inamorata in Anna’s house. A great Act 1 curtain line never really leads to much plot development, but there is a wittily cynical ending to enjoy.
Of course the play is a satire on social pretension, the shallowness of morality and the obsession with self, but I was more than uneasy with the hints of child abuse (how young is the girl whom we never see?) and the play lacks humanity. The Scots maid is in the tradition of the innocently knowing Yorkshire lass Ruby Birtle in When We Are Married (and even gets a little poem to recite like Ruby), but drawn without Priestley’s warmth and respect. Clare Corbett plays the caricature to the hilt – much to the glee of the audience, it must be said.
Julie Jupp and Lisa Stevenson play Anna and Clare with style and precision, but cannot consistently animate dialogue that has all the symptoms of humour, but not the disease itself. Julie Jupp, in particular, gives a masterclass in the eye-brows and meaningful pauses style of acting. Possibly the production could have used a touch more pace (there’s a hint of a farcical plot beneath the posing), but I suspect Chris Monks does all that can be reasonably expected with an intractable play.