The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Spring 2014
In the 1970s a middle-aged California couple, both divorced, formalised their relationship with a written contract, she guaranteeing sexual availability in return for financial security.
Adding to the only-in-California oddity was the fact that she was an ardent feminist with some difficulty reconciling her political philosophy to her practical needs and her sexual desires. And even further compounding the weirdness was the decision to record many of their conversations, in part to help her sort out her thinking, in part because they both enjoyed debate almost as much as sex, and in part with an eye toward eventual publication.
The book was published (pseudonymously) last year, and playwright Abi Morgan has further excerpted its conversations into a 90-minute play.
And so what we get are a string of encounters and pre- and post-sex discussions over more than thirty years, on topics ranging from feminism to fellatio to fidelity to concerns about their children and grandchildren.
And what the play shows us – which it is quite possible the couple themselves never quite realised – is a remarkably healthy, stable and loving marriage-in-all-but-name.
That's the appeal of this stage version, and the accomplishment of director Vicky Featherstone and actors Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb – presenting a couple who are obviously in love without realising it.
As with Shakespeare's Benedick and Beatrice, or the wary couples from a dozen TV sitcoms, our pleasure comes from watching them give themselves away with almost everything they say and do, without their being able to read the signs themselves.
When he keeps count of the number of nights a year he's getting for his money, he thinks he's measuring cost effectiveness, but he's really confessing how big a part of his life she's become. When she inquires casually about his other women, there's clearly more than idle curiosity driving her.
So, in addition to the interest of the actual discussions and the delight in knowing something about the characters that they don't know, The Mistress Contract also offers the considerable pleasure of watching a pair of actors skilfully and charmingly communicating insights into their characters without being able to say them out loud.
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