Warning: May contain petals
If there had been a “switch off your phones” announcement before The Maids Phil might have avoided leaning across Andrew to poke the man next to him who twice turned his on to check what time it was. Pretty annoying. But actually what this show really needed was a stern warning, “DON’T STEAL THE PETALS”.
Phil was investigating one of the thousands of petals that surrounded the stage after the play finished until he was barked at by an over-zealous usher. Of course Phil had no intention of indulging in a little petal-pilfery, he just wanted to know what they were made of. If you’re intending to see this don’t risk chastisement. They’re paper. Never say we don’t do the dirty work for you.
After the consecutive theatrical disappointments of Mrs Henderson Presents and the sweary hand puppets, we were ready to apply the three strikes and you’re out rule and cut back even more on our theatrical visitations.
Disquiet was further compounded by being left out in the cold on Whitehall at the slated start time of 7.30pm in a theatre crowd crush that didn’t appear to be going anywhere. Phil surveyed the poster, spotting Polly Bennett credited for “Movement” and hoped she might make an appearance to sort things out.
Had there been a curtain at the preview we attended we would say it eventually “went up” after 7.45 pm, finally “coming down” at 9.40 pm. Squeeze out your bladders thoroughly folks. There is no interval.
Apparently a “technical problem” had delayed things, perhaps the large petal bins which hang from the roof of Soutra Gilmour’s rather stylish four poster set had gone on the blink. They play a big part in Jamie Lloyd’s production but we will return to them later.
Phil had never seen Jean Genet‘s “masterpiece” before. Loosely based on events in France in 1933 when a pair of sisters Christine and Léa Papin, brutally murdered their employer and her daughter. This is a new potty-mouthed version courtesy of Benedict Andrews and Mr Cate Blanchett (Andrew Upton).
Solange (Uzo Aduba, Orange is the New Black) and Claire (Zawe Ashton, Fresh Meat) are sisters who work as maids for Mistress (Laura Carmichael, Downton‘s Lady Edith), a woman whose trashy dress sense makes those of The Real Housewives look tasteful and her behaviour is as petulant as Stephen Fry on Twitter.
All are obsessed with their status in life. The sisters indulge in some strange sadomasochistic game-playing while Mistress is away. They’ve already facilitated the gardener’s imprisonment and are now upping the stakes by plotting the murder of their mistress. The play opens with Claire dressed up and strutting around like RuPaul. All of which has to be more fun than housework.
The I love you/I hate you emotional see-saw between the two sisters and later between them and Mistress – when she finally struts in almost an hour into proceedings – does go on a bit and might test the patience of anyone. Though they do it so flipping well you have to blame the play and not the performers. Carmichael is good in her relatively brief appearances, but as befits their character status, the heavy lifting is left to Aduba and Ashton. They are spectacular. Awards nominations will be winging their way, though they’ll no doubt be beaten to the trophy by Hollywood A-listers.
Always good to see on-stage sweeping (last years theatrical trend cf. Carrie and Everyman) back in fashion. One brilliantly choreographed sweeping scene goes on and on, only to find that just as they’ve almost cleared the stage, thousands more are dumped on it from above. Phil had to snigger. In one of those weird quirks, Phil had been out to buy-a-broom, buy-a-broom, for himself only that very afternoon. How very strange.
The gardener’s incarceration has clearly led to his blooms dropping somewhat. The petals get everywhere and stick to everything. Phil was thrilled when Solange spent some time sporting a couple of petals stuck to each arse cheek of her black dress which stared out like a pair of eyes. Subliminal advertising for the Cats tour perhaps?
A cup of tea plays a crucial part in the events. Impressive cup and saucer wrangling from all concerned. Was the cup glued to the saucer? Probably not.
Sit near the front and it’ll be even more intense, though it is uncomfortable (it’s the godawful Trafalgar Studios, of course it is) and the sightlines are not great as the stage is low, especially, if like Phil, you get a late arriving topknot in front of you.
Casting two black women as the maids and locating this production in the US adds an extra angle, but it’s definitely a Marmite event; both maddening and mesmerising by turn, though that may be deliberate.
The music is, at times, intrusive and the text’s repetition could do with some judicious chopping. But on the other hand it’s incredibly stylish, the set and lighting are splendid, the acting is superb and on top of that (literally), the wigs are supplied by the ubiquitous Mr Richard Mawbey.
Phil was almost as surprised by the play’s unexpected denoument as he was hearing that nice Lady Edith utter the C word.
Just don’t finger the petals.