‘The Mistress Contract’ is the stage version of an anonymous couple’s memoir of their wildly unorthodox sexual relationship. And, oddly, it bears an uncanny resemblance to a Woody Allen script.
The elderly Americans known only as She and He have had nothing to do with Abi Morgan’s play. But their 2011 book provided her with ready-made dialogue. In 1981, they entered a contract whereby He agreed to provide She with a home and income in exchange for She granting He whatever sexual services he requested. And in the hope that other people could learn something from it, She insisted they record their conversations about life, love and sex, the transcripts of which became their book.
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.
Vicky Featherstone’s production starts with a blowjob: in the first scene, set in 1981, Saskia Reeves’s Diane Keaton-ish She is querying the point of the act to Danny Webb’s grizzled, laidback He. After ten minutes or so of sparring, they sign the contract, releasing her from ethical dilemmas over the appropriateness of fellatio. At which point he inevitably asks her for a blowjob.
And then we watch 30 years fly by: it’s really not about the raunch, but about two heavyweight intellects playfully clashing over life, sex, feminism and companionship, usually while drinking a lot.
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 literal contrivance of some conversations that were deliberately set up for the tape make for clunky moments. And the combination of brevity and lack of real incident means ‘The Mistress Contract’ never accumulates the heft one hankers for. But 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.
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Although this play obviously thought it was visionary and controversial, actually it was turgid, clichéd and unadventurous. It seems to be being heralded as a feminist play, but I didn't notice much that was even vaguely feminist.
An American couple in the 80's both having lived through failed marriages embark on a relationship held together by a "contract". They stay together for decades , they tape record all their conversations, and then decide they are fascinating enough to write a book about their "shocking relationship" Just a few flaws in this production : their relationship is not so much shocking as tedious, their taped conversations (at least the samples we share during the play) are so interesting that I started studying the architecture of the magnificent Royal Court Theatre. The show lasts for a very long 90 minutes. I struggle to think of anything positive to add. I'm sure Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb tried their very best, but they were just unable to turn trivia into gold.