The Maids, Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

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In some ways, this revival of Jean Genet’s claustrophobic three-hander, with its power-plays, lesbian incest and homicide, is exactly what one would expect from director Neil Bartlett. His translation is crisp, luxuriant where appropriate and unfussy elsewhere. The production aesthetic is Bartlett’s flavour of Queer-with-a-capital-Q: what was called decadence a century ago pervades the air like cathedral incense. The cast – Geraldine Alexander, Hayley Carmichael and Kathryn Hunter – are more than accomplished both in their careers and in their performances here.

It’s a little unusual to find the production staged in a hotel, but only a little; Bartlett, after all, once staged a meditation on mortality in a London hospital. The most surprising aspect of the location is that, after shuffling along corridors and through a darkened car park, the space we finally enter – with its scarlet-bulbed chandeliers and floor carpeted with flower petals – is otherwise a bare concrete box, perhaps a garage or a workshop rather than a room whose native atmosphere would have been consonant with the play.

But the unique point is that neither we nor the actresses know in advance who will be playing which role. The three enter slowly, then suddenly engage in a brief tussle for a floral corsage; at the performance I saw, Carmichael emerged triumphant, with the flowers and thus the part of Madame, and so Alexander was to play Claire and Hunter her sister Solange . . . except that, in this play about roles and identity, the action opens with Claire pretending to be Madame and Solange to be Claire. Do you follow?

Alexander makes an excellent brittle parody-mistress, but stamps rather less of a palpable identity on Claire in propria persona; Carmichael, in turn, adeptly plays Madame in a way that confirms Claire’s version of her as both exaggerated and yet based in fact. As Solange, Hunter is customarily magnificent, with her resonant, gravelly voice and her postures, which are somehow at once subservient and defiant. She really ought to be Britain’s next theatrical Dame. And when roles have been switched, one way or another, for the last time, we exit into a dark alley that wraps the shadows of the play back around us.
Tel 1273 709709
Sponsored by Matthew Andrews – photographer.

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