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“It’s an experiment,” She says, as she and her also anonymous lover sign their names to a contract. This extraordinary experiment was actually carried out: He and She are still alive (at 93 and 88 respectively) and still in contact.
This theatre piece by Abi Morgan is also an experiment, distilled from the memoir they published about their unusual sexual arrangement. It’s curious, challenging, brittle, unsatisfying in many respects yet surprisingly touching. Perhaps like the relationship itself.
Having first met at college, the two bumped into one another 20 years later. Both emotionally ragged, with several divorces between them, they were now defensive in different ways: She (Saskia Reeves) enthusiastically embraced feminism, He (Danny Webb) pursued sex without emotional commitment. Their affair looked doomed.
Then in 1981 She drafted the “mistress contract”: He would provide her with pleasant accommodation and income; She would provide him with sexual favours on demand; they would tape their conversations about the set-up. It seems a dismayingly reductive solution, yet it lasted 30 years. Did the contract keep them together, through their differences, long enough to admit their emotional need? Or was it a cop-out, enabling them to avoid the harder route of mutual compromise?
Transposed to stage, it promises a provocative exploration of the tangled relationship between the sexes, conducted across decades of significant change. Some of that it delivers, and at times it is startlingly frank. But the play doesn’t go far enough into these difficult questions and so reveals less than you might expect. She, for instance, promises all sexual favours but we don’t learn just what that entails and when or whether it might stray into abuse.
Morgan’s script doesn’t embellish this. And on stage, Vicky Featherstone’s spare production and Merle Hensel’s symbolic glasshouse set constantly remind you that this is a staged interpretation of a self-conscious experiment. But Reeves and Webb skilfully convey the insecurities of their characters behind all the bravado. And, remarkably, this dry staging subtly manages to reveal that, against the odds, this ends up being a love story.