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The Mistress Cycle Forgot the Story and the Feminism

The Landor Theatre in South London is a lovely little black box theatre with the rare distinction of comfortable seating. It's currently hosting the new American musical, The Mistress Cycle, with book and lyrics by Beth Blatt and music by Jenny Giering, until the 9th of March as part of the Page to Stage series. The set is lovely, the actors talented and the music enjoyable and it starts on a promising note with correlations drawn between the current situation of 30-year-old photographer, Tess (Caroline Deverill), and mistresses from throughout history.

Unfortunately, after the opening laughs, things go downhill. Or rather, they fail to move anywhere at all. On entering, we were told the show was 117 minutes, which it, thankfully, was not. It was more like 90 minutes and it takes 30 of those before the audience even finds out what the story is. Fully one third of the musical is devoted to introducing the 'mistresses' of history all of whom are more interesting and have more interesting stories than the main character, Tess. She has to decide whether or not to become a married man's mistress, but really there's no reason for her to do so, other than he's asked her. She doesn't know him, she doesn't need him to survive, she's just hasn't had a lot of luck with dating. It is no fault of Deverill, but her character just wanders through the other women's stories like a wet dishrag.

Full cast - Photo credit Charlotte Hopkins

While it was refreshing to see a female focused and driven drama, it seems that there is also a flaw in the gender politics of this show where the mistresses featured are: Anais Nin (Kara Lane), the 'infamous sexual adventuress' in the 1920s; Lulu White (Nicole Blackman), a 'bordello madame from turn-of-the-last-century New Orleans'; Diane de Poitiers (Laura Armstrong), Henri II sixteenth century, French mistress; and Ching (Maria Lawson), a 14-year-old concubine from 12th century China. Four of the five women in this show have the choice to become mistresses while Ching is a child sold into sexual slavery. The final note of the play where the mistress is clearly defined as a woman who has done wrong, seems quite unfair to the child who doesn't want to be a mistress at all.

The Mistress Cycle almost makes an interesting comment on the roles of women in a patriarchal work, but doesn't ever fully commit to it. Instead, we're left with the tired observations that some men treat women badly, their wives, their mistresses, their daughters; that when a husband has a mistress, it hurts his wife; that sexual freedom in women must stem from some damage done to them; and that the sexually liberated woman must always be punished in the end.

The Mistress Cycle plays at the Landor Theatre until 09 March 2014. Tickets are £15 and available online.