The Maids

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This 1947 play by French playwright Jean Genet comes to London’s West End in a new version for the Jamie Lloyd Company. The all-star cast features Uzo Aduba (best known for her role in US TV comedy Orange is the New Black), Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat) and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey).

The political and social intent of the production are made clear in the programme. There is an astonishing interview with a worker who was previously employed by a super wealthy family of the 1 percent accompanied by a page of statistics relating to workers who are employed in private homes around the globe.

The play is about two sisters, Solange (Aduba) and Claire (Ashton), who are in the service of an unnamed mistress (Carmichael). Set in the US and with two black actresses as the maids and a white actress as the mistress, it poses questions about race as well as class.

The play opens with the sisters acting out what becomes apparent is a regular fantasy role-playing game in which one of them dresses up as the mistress. It allows them to share their true feelings about her, and is at turns disturbing, surreal and absurd. It culminates in her “murder”. Once they come out of character the sisters discuss how Claire has set up the master by writing anonymous letters that have led to his recent arrest. As they continue to angrily and passionately reflect on their mistress they move to put their plan to kill her into action but they discover the master is out on bail.

This production looks and sounds fantastic. It runs for over 100 minutes without an interval and all the action takes place on a set that looks like a large four poster bed. It makes exciting use of light and music — the throbbing beats that can be heard behind the fantasy role-playing successfully contribute to the alarming atmosphere the scene generates. All three actresses give exhilarating and exhausting performances and it is great to see an all-woman production.

Although I found the latter part of the play lost the energy of the start this is a very engaging and memorable night in the theatre. While the challenging themes, content and language will not appeal to everyone, this is a fascinating insight into the hugely complex relationships that the staff of the super-rich can have with their employers. Despite being written nearly 70 years ago this play, based on true events, easily translates across time and has much we can relate to today.