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The Maids review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘more flash than substance’

Uzo Aduba in The Maids at Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Marc Brenner Uzo Aduba in The Maids at Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Marc Brenner
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You have to hand it to director Jamie Lloyd: he is now on his third season at the helm of his own West End company, given house room by Ambassador Theatre Group, the country’s largest theatre owner, and financed by them as well. And he’s making the sort of bold, enterprising choices of material that might have seemed better suited to a smaller studio space like the Donmar Warehouse. Last year he staged a rare revival of Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class starring James McAvoy and now he’s following it with a production of the even more esoteric The Maids.

Watching Jean Genet’s 1947 play is a discomforting experience. It’s a disturbing portrait of two sisters who work as maidservants to a rich mistress. They play out a cat-and-mouse game of control and submission, full of fantasies about their relationship to their employer. They’ve already taken revenge on her by getting her husband arrested.

But the deadly game is escalating and now they’re envisioning her brutal murder. Just how far will they go? There’s a deliberate extremity to what is being played out, and Lloyd goes at it hell for leather, pursuing them into their lurid fantasy world, which Jon Clark lights in appropriately sickly shades of green and a gradually enveloping gloom.

The new version of the text – originally created by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton for a Sydney Theatre Company production that starred Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert – is startling in its immediacy and use of ripe language, including the c-word. With references to Alexander McQueen coats, we’re also clearly in the here and now, and Lloyd has cast three actors who are also very current: Uzo Aduba, star of Orange is the New Black, and Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton bristle and parry as the resentful maids, with Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael playing their strident mistress.

There’s a lot of attitude, artifice and posing between them, but not a lot of deep feeling. The production skates along on shiny surfaces rather than probe the play’s murkier territories. It’s not as potent as Neil Bartlett’s chillingly realised 2007 production for the Brighton Festival.

Everything feels a little over-ripe and spelled out here. This even extends to the set; designed by Lloyd’s regular collaborator Soutra Gilmour with the audience arranged on two sides of the stage, it looks like a coffin that’s been stretched to fill the space.

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Challenging and surprising West End offering that ultimately delivers more flash than substance