Review Round-up: Mixed bag for Morgan's Mistress Contract
Abi Morgan's new play ''The Mistress Contract'', adapted from the transcripts of a real-life couple, premiered at the Royal Court last night to a decidedly lukewarm critical reception
This is a love story, though a love story with a very modern spin, based on the recently published book of the same title in which the authors are known only as She and He... The play is barely into its opening scene before we get a full and frank discussion of fellatio... Theatregoers may be relieved to learn that we don't see any geriatric sex action or nudity in Vicky Featherstone's production. The play consists entirely of dialogue in the striking glass walled house with a desert garden on the American West Coast in which the man set up his mistress. The play is so sleekly designed by Merle Hensel that I felt like moving in myself... I have to admit that I wished the play dealt more with love, lust and the human heart and less with sexual politics. In Saskia Reeves' earnest, bespectacled performance you can't help thinking she got the better part of the deal in getting her lover to pay while also reading him the riot act about feminist issues.
I was struck by how conventional the play is: it kept reminding me of a popular 1970s Broadway comedy, Same Time Next Year by Bernard Slade, in which a married couple's annual clandestine meetings yield something like love... The anonymous couple, who've known each since grad school and are characterised simply as She and He, decide in 1981 to formalise their relationship. She, a twice-married feminist, agrees to provide "mistress services" while He, a wealthy businessman, will offer her a house, necessary expenses and periodic companionship... But, although She and He talk endlessly about sex, they never talk much about anything else... Under Vicky Featherstone's shrewd directorial guidance, the two actors also age with subtlety and finesse. But, although I admire the play for its sexual candour, it still strikes me as a hermetic, inbred work in which private lives are never really subjected to the pressure of external events.
The Mistress Contract is the stage version of an anonymous couple's memoir of their wildly unorthodox sexual relationship... Which sounds a) weird and b) complicated. But it's quirkier, funnier and chaster than that, and makes more sense once distilled to two people talking on a stage... Two sterling performances are needed and duly delivered: Reeves is bright, questing and clearly sitting on a mound of unvoiced pain; Webb is louche, provocative, clever and - ultimately - caring... the more we get to know She and He, the more compelling their spark, intelligence, frailty and affection for each other becomes. It is a play about the importance of talking to one another, and it's a pleasure to eavesdrop.
In Vicky Featherstone's efficient production we see the two characters age, with inevitable results. Webb is touching as He contemplates his embrace of something akin to monogamy, and Reeves captures She's clipped, didactic tone... But what's lacking, for the most part, is a strong impression of the attraction that binds the couple together. The initial deal, with its talk of the "suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers", sounds like an opportunity to get into some interestingly dark territory. Yet in practice the dialogue is less edgy than that of, say, an episode of Lena Dunham's Girls... As a foray into the world of gender politics The Mistress Contract isn't blazingly original. And what it fatally lacks is a bruising sense of the personal - of life really lived, rather than fussily discussed... [a] humourless, dramatically undernourished experience.
Moment by moment, Vicky Featherstone's production is an elegant proposition: nicely acted, not without wit. Yet for all the topics this supposedly boundary-breaking pair tick off, it's amazing how little of substance really gets said here... We never for a second think they are going to redefine gender roles, and they fail to examine their unusual set-up with the rigour we are primed to expect. Yes, there are moments of tenderness, moments of intrigue. Yet it's anecdotal more than dramatic, and curdles into real indulgence when our heroes talk about the publication of the book about them talking about themselves... Webb is excellent as this ageing pragmatist and player. Reeves makes a brittle woman come alive, looks perfect in her glasses and brash colours. On opening night, though, both fumbled the odd cue... It's enough to make you think that they, too, are struggling to find what's at the heart of this frank but self-regarding talkpiece.
Though I have not read this book, I have just seen its stage adaptation at the Royal Court, and a princely dose of toothache it proves. Playwright Abi Morgan has the task of bringing to life these two people and making dramatic sense of their amoral arrangement. The trouble with amorality, however, is that it defies easy belief... They are so intellectual that it is hard to credit any physicality between the two until the end, when a certain softness is eventually allowed to intrude. What a pity we never see them in the company of other people. That might cheer things up for the poor audience... The actors, flailing under Vicky Featherstone's wooden direction, do much striding around and drinking of wine. I certainly felt like doing the latter by the time this turgid evening ended.