The Maids: Theatre Review

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I had never seen or read Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids, but when I saw the cast announcement – it stars Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes), Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael and Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton – I thought it sounded too good to pass up, and then I discovered it is directed by Jamie Lloyd, the man behind James McAvoy’s star turn in The Ruling Class. I simply had to book.

Aduba and Ashton are The Maids and carry the majority of the play themselves on a small stage, which is covered in flower petals and surrounded by the audience on both sides. There is nowhere to hide – no furniture, minimal props. It would be easy to be vulnerable in a situation like that – especially Ashton who has to walk around in her underwear – but they both bring their all. Just watching their energy made me tired, and to think they’re doing this weeks on end is just incredible.

It is basically a psychological thriller and the maids act out scenarios in which they kill their Mistress and they take it in turns to play her role. But when she actually turns up, with her husband in jail after the maids dobbed him in, can they actually kill her to save their skin?

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Not an awful lot happens plot-wise but it is by no means boring. The conversations are rapid fire and take twists and turns all over the place. It requires concentration, especially because their physical acting is so enthralling and you sometimes focus on that rather than both. Information is slowly fed to you throughout their exchange and you have to make sure you catch it all. The whole thing was clearly building to something – will they? Won’t they? I had hoped it would have a gory end or something majorly shocking but there never was. I was ready for the end by the time it came – one of the final scenes went on a bit too long.

The play has definitely been modernised and it is wacky and balls-to-the-wall. You get that vibe from the techno-style music playing in the auditorium and the use of lights throughout. Those coming for a traditional take may leave disappointed, but as someone fresh to the text, I liked it.

My personal favourite was Ashton, who is British and lesser known than the others. The acting style for all is over-the-top but she just manages to surpass the other two. Her moods seriously swing, she is happy and excitable one moment and frightened for her life the next, and Ashton portrays this mental instability really well. She also has the most to do technically with onstage costume changes etc. Aduba was also great. She differs greatly in physique to the tall and lean Ashton and at first seems like the timid and agreeable type but you soon learn she is not to be messed with. I love the power play between them both.

People hoping to see a lot of Laura Carmichael will be disappointed because she is not in it as much as I expected. But she makes her stage time count. Her Mistress is also over-the-top. One moment she is lovely to her maids and the next she is cruel. She is self-obsessed, fake and wears this hideous outfit. I wasn’t convinced by her performance at first, but that’s because she is so different to Lady Edith, which is how we all know her.

All in all, this is totally nuts and wild but so enjoyable. I laughed out loud a lot but I was also emotionally drained at the end just from watching their psychological tussle and trying to keep up with the back-and-forth (without a break too!). I honestly have no idea how the two maids do that every night. That’s an achievement in itself. Check it out!

Playing at London’s Trafalgar Studios until 21st May.

Comments

  1. Thoughtful review. I wish I could see it. I agree that it’s often difficult to transition with an actor’s roles … especially if they’re really, really talented!

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