The Mistress Cycle, which runs at the Landor as part of Aria Entertainment's From Page to Stage season, is the story of Tess, a struggling 30-something photographer who is made an offer by a wealthy, older man to "keep her" as his mistress.
As she wrestles with his proposition, mistresses from different eras and cultures come to tell their stories: a 14-year-old concubine from 12 Century China; the mistress of Henri II of France in the 1500's; a bordello madame in turn-of-the-last-century New Orleans; and Anais Nin, diarist and sexual adventuress. This eclectic material should make for a show that is full of variety. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
What the piece does do is give the five-strong all-female cast a chance to shine. They are better than the material they're given, however. Jenny Giering's meandering score owes more to classical art song than musical theatre. The vocal lines are often made up of some very strange intervals, requiring singers to hit the centre of each note to avoid sounding out of tune. Unfortunately, most of the cast fall foul of this at some point. It may be hard music, but we shouldn't see this so clearly and, frankly, the hard work the cast have clearly put in is not worth it – all the musical interest the score holds is in the piano accompaniment, beautifully played by musical director Caroline Humphris.
Beth Blatt's lyrics are far more strong than the music, but her book leaves a lot to be desired, primarily because the central conceit of Tess really doesn't string these disparate stories together, and the denouement seems false and forced. This is no reflection on Caroline Deveril's excellent performance as Tess, who does what she can with the material; bringing some much needed comedy to the role that also helps to heighten our empathy for her. Also very strong are Kara Lane as Nin, and Nicola Blackman as the madame, Lulu White, whose story was the only one that really moved me.
Aria Entertainment's From Page to Stage season admirably presents a mixed programme of work and is certainly worthy of it's Arts Council funding and, while I didn't enjoy this particular offering, I fully endorse the thinking behind the showcasing of it.