Review: The Mistress Contract, by Abi Morgan at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

mistress contract royal court posterWhatever I imagined saying about The Mistress Contract, this was not it: it’s a love story. There. I said it.  Abi Morgan’s new play – based on a real life couple whose relationship (sexual and otherwise) is defined by a contract, complete with terms and conditions and clauses for services provided – doesn’t inspire romantic thoughts. But in an unexpected way the absence of romance – a mythical beast of misguided expectations – forges new connections of love and tenderness.

The script is based on conversations the couple recorded over 30 years. We catch up with them in various moments of their common life, always in the same house, often under the same circumstances (He travels to find her. She waits, less faithful Penelope, more impatient Calypso). Much of what we see has a fumbling quality. He and She (as they are known to us) don’t lack articulacy but in a ferocious effort to drive the point, they sometimes drop it. Yet their discussions have blood and guts. (I complained that Rapture, Blister, Burn substitutes character for feminist theory. This is the opposite: feminist arguments remain unfinished but characters are taught with the tension of it all).

None of the scenes are sexual but they are intimate. They are also unexpected. These people aren’t interested in structuring their lives into a play and therefore moments aren’t signposted. Yet, between the script, the performances, and Vicky Featherstone’s direction, a picture starts taking shape.

Saskia Reeves is brittle, often fidgety. She drives much of the action, but remains unsettled. Possibly because the woman has the most to lose.  Danny Webb starts confident, but the confidence is eroded only to make way for tenderness and a softer core.

In the end, the story looks like reverse engineering: what happens if you forcefully remove romantic expectations? It seems  that love  – s different kind of love – rushes in. How about that?

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