THEATRE REVIEW: The Maids, Trafalgar Studios

running until 21 May

Jamie Lloyd continues his knack of drawing a young, buzzy crowd to Trafalgar Studios with his winning formula: shows that feel contemporary regardless of their heritage; bold, stylised design; and star-power casts who still have some hefty acting chops and refuse to be dumbed down.

The Maids - Trafalgar Studios
Uzo Aduba in The Maids

Jean Genet’s The Maids has now been given the Lloyd treatment, with a cast featuring three of TV’s rising and recent stars, each of whom gives their own impressive performance: Laura Carmichael (best known as Downton Abbey‘s unlucky-in-love Edith Crawley), Orange Is The New Black‘s Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton of Fresh Meat fame. Aduba and Ashton give excellent, intense portrayals of the two maids and sisters (and lovers?). When the show begins, Ashton’s character Claire is acting out the part of her mistress – an exaggerated, grotesque version with a blonde wig and make-up reminiscent of a drag queen. As she stomps around the stage, gesticulating wildly and pushing the ‘game’ further and further, our first impression of Ashton is electric. The scene makes for a bold start, and it begins to mark out the relationship between the two sisters, which staggers from deep love (that at times verges on something more than sisterly), hysteria and fury.

As Solange, Aduba starts off seeming like the quieter force, reacting to and attempting to fend off her sister’s wilder behaviour. But, it emerges, she is bottling up an even greater ferocity and it all comes pouring out in the play’s latter stage – a great surge, as if relishing in the furious, poisonous energy.

The much talked-about, mimicked Mistress eventually emerges in an all-too brief appearance from Carmichael. After her Downton role, it’s a joy to see her owning a space, strutting around in her striped over-the-knee socks, metallic brocade miniskirt and massive fur coat. She is impatient and impetuous, handing out her fur coats and McQueen-esque dresses as gifts before snatching them back moments later. At points she is hysterically funny, but you can see why Claire and Solange detest this woman who is everything they can never be: glamorous, thoughtless, impulsive, self-confident, powerful. The relationship is only seen for one scene, but it resonates throughout the play as the power struggles reverberate around the heady, claustrophobic box that is the set.

The Maids - Trafalgar Studios
Laura Carmichael in The Maids, with design by Soutra Gilmour

Soutra Gilmour’s design is contained with an elaborate wooden box; it dominates the stage, coffin-like, as the audience files in. When it is opened, like a Pandora’s box emitting all the fury and frustration, it is an intoxicating casket of fallen petals; you can almost trick yourself into being able to smell their perfume. The McQueen-infused design is striking and elevates the production into something more fascinating than the script alone can achieve.

And that, in the end, is the issue: while the performances crackle with ferocious energy, and the gorgeous design enhances the experience, the play itself feels like an odd choice. Despite the rather reckless choices of its characters, the pitch feels pretty monotonous throughout – it starts so high and frenzied that it doesn’t really have anywhere to go. The interactions between the sisters begins to feel repetitive, and while I normally enjoy a show that runs straight through with no interval, I couldn’t help feeling a little restless after nearly two hours of this script. Lloyd and his team display their evident talents, as ever, but this production isn’t the brightest shining example of what they can achieve.

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