Spoiler alert: sometimes a play's descriptive outline on the publicity tells you virtually everything that's going to happen in what you see. Such is the case with The Mistress Contract, a new play by playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan, inspired by a true life memoir of the same name that was published in 2011, written by an unnamed couple (simply billed as She and He) that chronicled nearly 30 years of a relationship that was conducted between them under very specific terms that both agreed to.
And in relaying them now, I am also spoiling the central plot point, too: In 1981, she (then in her early 50s) issued him (in his mid 50s) with a contract that laid out a new deal for their subsequent physical transactions. He would provide adequate accommodations for her and cover her living expenses. She, in turn, would provide 1) all housekeeping duties and 2) “all sexual acts as requested, with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers.”
Throughout the next thirty years, they kept an ongoing physical record of their relationship by taping the conversations they had with each other, and then transcribed the result, which is by turns illuminating and infuriating as an exercise in the battle of the sexes and inequality with access to her flesh exchanged for his money.
But despite Morgan's neat distillation of the passing years into five scenes, taking place between 1981 and 2010, the result is essentially not dramatic: more philosophy and earnest sexual politics, albeit one with much discussion over the niceties of oral sex (for him) and an apparent resistance but compliance nonetheless (for her). Early on, she tells him that what she really wants to say is, "Look my throat is too small, my taste is for celery and peanut butter, not semen and I'm a nervous vomiter. It can't be the nature of your sexuality to wish to place your generative organ down my throat."
There's no titillation in any of this, of course, only a kind of sadness that sex has turned into an experimental transaction. But it doesn't make much of a play, either.
One of my colleagues was fast asleep for much of it, which is one kind of critical response. Predictable and talkative as it is, it bored me too but not enough to sleep through it. I do, however, applaud the fine Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb for maintaining their composure and dignity, and a very sensitive and discreet aging that they achieve over the years.
"The play is so sleekly designed by Merle Hensel that I felt like moving in my self."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"The conversation is stilted, deliberately, but this doesn’t achieve anything except the repetitive assertion of bland objectivity."
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"... 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."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"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."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"As a foray into the world of gender politics The Mistress Contract isn’t blazingly original."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard