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Theatre Review: The Mistress Contract, Royal Court Theatre

10/02/2014 16:33 GMT | Updated 11/04/2014 10:59 BST

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The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court is such a missed opportunity. The source material, a true story of a couple in the USA who've engaged in a sex services contract for the past 40 years, is fascinating but this stage adaptation is a disappointment.

It's 1981 on the West coast of America and 42 year old divorcee She (neither man nor woman is ever identified) proclaims to the man she is having an affair with that she wants their relationship to be formalised in a contract. Scarred by a miserable marriage that left her with limited finances, She (Saskia Reeves) proposes a transparent arrangement to He(Danny Webb) where he will pay for her living arrangements and reasonable costs in exchange for all sexual services, provided without question.

She sees this as a feminist act, as a way of getting what she wants, financial security and freedom, the "price of admission into [her] intimacy." He sees it as great way to get what he wants and signs up with enthusiasm. And so this "experiment" (as She refers to it as) begins.

Only nothing actually happens. The first 20 minutes of this 90 minute play is spent discussing this set up. Only the two characters - and there are no other characters in this play - don't disagree. It's just 20 minutes without any conflict, which is quite dull to watch.

This lack of spark and limited subject matter discussion continues through the rest of the play, which is a surprise as the adaptation was written by Abi Morgan, one of this country's finest writers, and it's directed by Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court.

The Mistress Contract is promoted as a feminist play - a play where gender politics is front and centre - but very little of the play explores the feminism in this set-up. At the heart of this is a woman who thinks she is empowering herself by having this contract. That is a rich area to explore but in fact nothing is actually questioned.

Not once in 40 years does She doubt her feminist principles in setting up this contract, not once does she question what she has lost rather than what has been gained. She has foregone love and affection, even the possibility of true happiness. Not even her own daughter's stable marriage causes her to question the lack of love, the lack of affection, in her own set up. You feel like getting up and shouting, where is the love?

Even a brief reference to prostitution doesn't spark any row or cause She to question her road map. An interesting discussion on She's sexual satisfaction briefly makes an appearance when He is surprised to learn She doesn't orgasm each time. He is genuinely concerned, maybe as an affront to his own ego, but nevertheless he tries to address this.

And here's a genuinely fascinating point. Maybe in drawing up the contract, She overlooked that her own sexual satisfaction was no longer relevant or applicable to her situation. How does she feel about that, as a woman and a feminist? It's a point that's never explored for as soon as the subject comes up, it disappears again and we never know whether She ever gets sexual satisfaction.

Certainly He and She show no physical affection or intimacy with each other on stage. They circle each other endlessly, never once comfortable in each other's personal space. It's a very cold arrangement and this lack of warmth never changes, giving the audience little to engage with.

You're just wishing for something to happen, and nothing really does. This play sort of limps along with the couple never really experiencing any difficulties - there are never moments where either threatens to tear up the contract. Conversely neither ever shows real happiness or jubilation with the arrangement.

Nor does the direction or set design give us much to connect with. Though He and She age gracefully throughout the play, the one-room set never changes. The set is a striking glass-fronted lounge that looks over the deserts of Western America, but there's no decorative change which would give us an indication of what characters are feeling on the inside. Nothing changes in this room in 40 years.

And little from the outside makes an impression either. Gender politics in the USA over the past 40 years has been a vicious battleground with very profound discussions on women in the workplace, abortion, marriage rights, women in religion and even the possibility of women in the White House grabbing the headlines. But none of this permeates the play at all. She and He seem to live in a social and cultural vacuum.

This subject, this true life story, offered up so much to explore and given the talent attached to the project, expectations were high for this production. Maybe that is part of the problem, that this disappoints so much because so much was expected. But even the most forgiving are likely to agree that this hollow production could and should have been so much more.

Royal Court Theatre, London

To March 22, 2014