Samuel Butler said it was very good of God to let Thomas and Jane Carlyle marry each other: it meant that only two people rather than four were made miserable. I felt much the same about the She and He in Abi Morgan's new play The Mistress Contract. Thank goodness this pair got together and prevented another couple being driven mad with boredom.The Mistress Contractby Abi MorganRoyal Court, LondonStarts 30 JanuaryUntil 22 MarchBox office:
020 7565 5000Venue website
She and He (no names) are lovers. They knew each other at college but then lost touch. Twenty years and several marriages later they meet again and start an affair. She, a teacher who seems to spend more time in women's groups than with her students, finds herself becoming angry with their arrangements and proposes a deal, a written contract. In return for "mistress services" (which boils down to sex whenever and however her lover wants it), he will supply "tasteful accommodations" and "expenses". He, an affluent businessman, accepts eagerly – once he's run the paperwork past his lawyer. The arrangement is enduring. Neatly concealed till the end of Abi Morgan's play is the fact of their spectacular ages.
This is a real-life story, perhaps even a true one. Morgan has based her plays on tapes the couple made of their conversations in restaurants, in bed, over breakfast. It's also an annoying one. "She" seems hellbent on giving feminism a bad name. She talks up her miseries, not least the unpleasantness of sucking cocks, but runs herself down: "I am much less skilled at speaking." She speaks a lot, of equality as if it were as measurable as a bag of sugar. She is stuck in a parody of feminism which sees it as naturally opposed to the idea of liking men. He is stereotypically short on emotional nuance and eager to get his trousers off, pretty much for anyone. Both start from the assumption that He will have a good time in the sack and She won't.
Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb can't make this grim couple engaging, though with great skill they suggest their gradual ageing. Of course He and She don't have to be likable to be interesting, but to demand attention their conversation needs more layers than this. Their only topic is themselves. There are no undercurrents, no surprising contradictions, hardly any tonal variety. In Vicky Featherstone's production everything is explicit. Merle Hensel's design shows a parched, unchanging Californian landscape with a phallic cactus. This allows some meaningful talk about the need for irrigation. Until the very end all exchanges take place with Reeves and Webb standing as if, far from having a series of intimate encounters, they were engaged in public debate.
As perhaps they were all along. It turns out that those tapes were made with a purpose other than that of recollection. They are turned into a book. And now, of course, a play. So enmired is He and She's language in the idea of mercantile exchange it should come as no surprise that they want to cash in their memories. Was that the point all along?Juliet Stevenson in Happy Days: ‘Her sincerity and fervent naturalism light up the role.’ Photograph: Tristram Kenton
You would have to go a long way to find a more intensely feminist play than Happy Days, which was first staged in 1961. It makes a woman the centre of a play that talks of the human condition. You can, it suggests, have a handbag and still speak for everyone. For me, this has always been a more genial, though not more ingratiating play than Waiting for Godot. It is one of Beckett's Charon-like dramas, ferrying a human audience from daily life to the other side of realism. It has, as does Krapp's Last Tape, one foot in the dull and one in the barmy. "What's it meant to mean?" asks a man, looking at this female yapping away while "stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground". "What," responds his wife, "are you meant to mean?" The marvellous thing about this exchange, exactly catching some first responses to Beckett, is that it is within the play itself.
At first Juliet Stevenson seems an unlikely Beckettian. She doesn't offer the customary music hall vivacity or bleached wanness. In fact, her sincerity and fervent naturalism light up the role of Winnie. She steers a fine line between braveness and bravura with nothing of the incantatory in her speech. She dips cosily but adventurously into her marvellous bag, as if it's likely to contain, along with a gun, the heavens' embroidered cloths. She shows life leaching from her, as it does from the terminally ill. In Natalie Abrahami's absorbing production each lurch towards death is accompanied by a fizzling roar. At the same time, Vicki Mortimer's sympathetic, bleak design makes the landscape look like a costume. A warmly coloured skirt of shingle at first spreads out like a New Look frock. Later, thanks to the great Paule Constable's lighting, that shingle becomes grey, and risen around Stevenson's neck like a surgical collar.'Florid and bustling': Georgia Clarke-Day, George Mackay and Ruby Bentall in The Cement Garden at the Vaults. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
The Vaults might seem a perfect setting for The Cement Garden. Under Waterloo station, led up to by a concrete graffiti corridor, the place echoes with the rumble of trains, as Ian McEwan's first novel rumbles with the approach of sex and police cars and discovery and death. Yet this is not a perfect match of styles. McEwan's prose is slinky with wit and suggestion. Its tale of a parent buried in the cellar, and adolescent fumbles buried under bewildered shame is offered up almost implacably, as if it were an everyday story of youthful folk. McEwan rarely raises his voice. David Aula's production too often does so. Its limber young cast swing from girders. The youngest child, over-emphatically powerless, is played by a brown paper puppet. Spoken directly to the audience, running over the action as a commentary, the first-person narrative is made florid and bustling.
This staging is not frightening, but it is full of ideas and slowly the evening delivers some feeling of the novel. Ruby Bentall has the smug seductiveness of a cat; David Annen almost bursts from his skin with frustration. One aspect, often overlooked in excitement about sibling incest scenes, sings out clearly. You are against boys dressing as girls because you think it's bad to be a girl, one child coolly points out. Feminism is here too.
Star ratings (out of 5)
The Mistress Contract **
Happy Days ****
The Cement Garden ***