Marrying the Mistress

From the novel by Joanna Trollope, adapted and directed by David Taylor
Richmond Theatre, Surrey, and touring
(2005)

It was the late Sir James Goldsmith who suggested that when a man marries his mistress, he creates a vacancy. Joanna Trollope cleverly adapted his memorable phrase for the title of her 2000 novel, Marrying the Mistress, doing no harm to sales of the book while also attracting a flurry of interest from film and television producers — which eventually came to naught.

But five years on it has become her first novel to be staged: a touring production with a starry cast, which opened in Guildford in mid-September and reaches its eleventh venue in Windsor, just before the panto season begins.

Despite its titillating title, the book suprisingly turns upside down all our received ideas about marital break-ups. A man who leaves his wife for another woman is automatically branded a villain, his wife becomes the injured, innocent party, while the mistress is a ‘home-wrecker’.

But in this case a sweet-natured High Court judge of the greatest probity, played with gentle goodness by Jeremy Clyde, has endured a loveless marriage with a self-centred, bullying wife for half a lifetime.

Now he has plucked up courage to marry his mistress of seven years, a brilliant young barrister with an honest and open heart (Daisy Beaumont), but whose own mother (Jacqueline Clark) believes that this May to December relationship will end in grief for her daughter.

Meanwhile the ‘wronged wife’ reveals her true character as a manipulative monster — an uncharacteristic role for veteran actress Polly Addams — eventually alienating and upsetting all her own close family members with her demands for unquestioning support.

But the second surprise is that Trollope makes the older son, a High Street solicitor, and his adored wife, the true focus of her plot. This loving and attractive couple beautifully portrayed by Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe now find their own marriage going through a vulnerable patch because of his mother’s constant demands on his time and professional support, until the matter quite suddenly reaches breaking point.

Meanwhile their teenage son, a part well-served by Mat Ruttle making his professional stage debut, is going through a crisis of first love; while the boy’s bachelor uncle also has a lot on his mind as he throws himself into a new gay domestic partnership with a doctor — a cleverly cool performance by Damien Goodwin.

As all this suggests, the actors carry the evening. But serious staging difficulties have been introduced by the director’s approach to his own adaptation of the book. David Taylor’s apparent objective has been to stage the novel rather than to create a dramatic equivalent that respects Trollope’s themes, while also respecting our theatrical expectations.

For example, the evening begins with a repetitive series of static telephone conversations. For these the actors stand like spotlit statues, facing the audience, delivering what amounts to character and motivational insights, a novelistic device that would be acceptable in a radio play, but is surely out of place in the theatre.

This technique is also repeated subsequently, as are the rather too many ‘phone calls that replace face-to-face dialogue.

Clearly all this should have been developed through sustained dramatic action. But even when action takes over from exposition, the scenes are televisually short, interrupted by blackouts and a tinkling piano motif, as we watch the shadowy figures of the players taking up their next positions.

As a leading American director, David Taylor has also placed heavy demands on his stage designer Simon Higlett, whose basic setting of two adjoining kitchens subtly reveals the assumptions and lifestyles of their occupants.

But the production is furniture-heavy, with alternative settings like DFS sofa ads constantly trucked out from left and right to serve short, downstage scenes — scenes which are sometimes put into awkward ‘freeze mode’ as the focus turns to another part of the forest.

Given these problems (also noted by fellow critics) it seems unlikely that this adaptation will enjoy a stage life beyond its present tour, despite the excellence of the cast. But I am confident that, were BBC Radio 4 prepared to take up the challenge, Taylor’s play would make a popular 90-minute radio drama.

Diane Kennedy reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

John Thaxter