The Mistress Cycle

Reviewer's Rating

It’s a curious place, The Landor. On the one hand this little powerhouse of a theatre above a pub a couple of minutes away from Clapham North underground station punches well above its weight, and has a genuine claim to be one of the half dozen most consistently fulfilling places to go outside Zone 1. On the other, it’s the battleground where commerce and culture meet, and face each other in a standoff that neither should be fighting.

This evening it was a duel between The Mistress Cycle, the final offering in the ‘From Page to Stage’ festival of new writing for the musical theatre, and a loudly amplified, though not particularly difficult (sample question – What does the ‘A’ stand for in NATO?) pub quiz which was taking place in the hostelry downstairs. It doesn’t take a genius to work put who proved more disruptive to whom…

However, to the show; there are certainly problems with The Mistress Cycle, more of which later, though to be fair it’s nicely produced, and benefits from having an excellent cast. On top of that Bronagh Lagan’s direction is exemplary, and very inventive, and full marks to Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment for mounting the season in the first place, in collaboration with The Landor.

The story is notionally that of Tess (Caroline Deverill), who we are told is a photographer, who heads to an art gallery where she is able to see paintings of four ‘mistresses’ from various points in time; Ching, (Maria Lawson) a 14 year old concubine from Twelfth century China; Diane de Poitiers (Laura Armstrong) the Sixteenth century mistress of King Henri II of France; Lulu White (Nicola Blackman), a madam from turn-of-the-Twentieth century New Orleans, and Anais Nin (Kara Lane), a Twentieth century diarist of sexual exploit.

The cast is strong, and it really would be invidious to single out any one individual for praise, such was the strength of the ensemble, however, I really feel I should praise the wonderful Nicola Blackburn who, following a wardrobe malfunction which left her exposed in the most personal of predicaments, was able not only to crack a joke at her own misfortune, but also to pick up her place and carry on hardly as if a thing had happened – a fact all the more remarkable as, due to the cruel hand of fate, at almost exactly the same time the electric piano on which Caroline Humphris was ably musically directing, managed completely to silence itself. Well done to everyone for carrying on regardless.

However, the material…

It seems invidious to criticise anything which is still, clearly, a work in progress, and yet at £15 a ticket, it’s very nearly up against bargain seats in the West End, so here goes…

In the season brochure for From Page to Stage, we are told that Beth Blatt, as well as teaching the craft of musical theatre writing, was a part of the BMI Lehmann Engel programme in New York. I find this troubling, as she doesn’t seem particularly to have applied what she’s been taught to The Mistress Cycle.

Setting aside the mis-stressed words, and almost total absence of conflict in the writing, the thing which stands out by its absence is a coherent dramatic structure to the piece. Put simply, nothing happens. A woman (Tess) goes to an art gallery, and there sees painting of various courtesans and mistresses. Dramatically, nothing happens until 40 minutes in, by which time, I really didn’t care about any of the characters, which was a shame as there were probably interesting stories which could have been told had the characters actually interacted with Tess. They don’t.

Broadly speaking Jenny Giering’s music is pretty featureless. There are five distinct periods on show here, and yet with the exception of a very few notable moments, the music and lyrics could have been swapped between characters, and you would have been hard pressed to notice the change. There didn’t seem to me to be enough light and shade, and the whole piece is seriously in need of an injection of humour – it could best be summed up in one word – Worthy.

On the whole, I hope the writers continue with it, as there’s plenty to say with this interesting subject. As David Spencer, author ofThe Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide, and tutor on The BMI Lehmann Engel programme, says ‘It all begins with the book’. Beth Blatt…take note.