Boston Marriage, Highbury Theatre Studio, Sutton Coldfield

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A three handed play, with all -female cast, by David Mamet, written in 1999. “Boston Marriage” is set a century earlier, the title being a euphemism, said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. The place is assumed to be Boston, New England.

The term “Boston marriage” became associated with Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886), a novel involving a long-term co-habiting relationship between two unmarried women. Although James himself never used the term, his sister Alice, who lived in such a relationship with another woman, Katherine Loring, was among his sources .

Plays about, or featuring, gay men are not uncommon, those featuring lesbian relationships less so. However acceptance of women living together in ambiguous circumstances has been more socially accepted over the years than men doing likewise. The plot is modest, the script verbose, making it a challenging play for a director. If it is played as a niche lesbian drama it narrows its audience, if played as a straight parlour play its raison d’etre is lost, if sexed up, the border between comedy and vulgarity can be fine.

Director Sandra Haynes aims for subtle, rather than vulgar, comedy, and implied, rather than overt sexuality.

Alison Cahill is the stay-at-home Anna, mistress to a wealthy man who maintains her lavish, kept lifestyle, while her lover Claire (Joanne Richards) has met an innocent young woman whom she hopes to bring to Anna’s house to seduce. Although pivotal to the plot, we never physically meet the intended prey. Anna is waspish and overbearing, Claire is all aloof social refinement mixed with carnal lust. Both principals handled their word heavy, demanding roles, admirably, although I read more sexual chemistry and tension in the play than is portrayed here.

Between the two lovers is the put-upon Scottish maid Catherine (Jen Godbehere) , whom Anna calls with equal indifference Mary, and any other name that comes to mind. Catherine’s quick wit, sly disobedience and cheeky subversion are nicely played, and Godbehere’s confidence in the part grew as the play progressed. The cruel bullying by Anna of Catherine is explained by her desire for her, as evidenced by her proposition , mirroring Claire’s desires for a younger woman too.
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The badinage is witty and quick-fire, designed to shock, that the outwardly refined can be so filthy of thought and bedroom desire. Curiously the language uses frequent anachronisms ( “Go tell it to the marines”) combined with obscure and arcane words and phrases a century old, all delivered in iambic pentameter making it a demanding piece for the actors to learn.

The studio performance was particularly apt for this single set production, a parlour play performed in a parlour. “Boston Marriage” runs until Saturday 14th March.

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