Loosely based on the true story of sisters Lèa and Christine Papin, who killed their employer in 1933, the notoriously vicious three-hander focuses on two increasingly sadomasochistic housemaids as they enact different ways in which they could murder their mistress.
Translator Benedict Andrews and writer Andrew Upton drag the story into a modern American setting with a punchy, profane yet still poetic new version, directed with relentless pace by Jamie Lloyd.
Staged in the round inside an open wooden frame that looks simultaneously like a four-poster bed and a coffin, the production is shaped by sex and death. But the brutality is animated by a heady glamour: heaps of pale pink petals, exquisite couture and ecstatic roleplaying combine to create an aesthetic that sits somewhere between Alexander McQueen and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Laura Carmichael ditches any Downton Abbey primness in her portrayal of Mistress, with a sharply funny parody of the ditzy airhead who feeds off the love of her servants.
Multi-award-winning Uzo Aduba is just as impressive as expected in her London stage debut. She plays maid Solange with captivating complexity and a combination of volatility, violence and vulnerability that Orange is the New Black fans will recognise from her portrayal of Crazy Eyes.
As maid Claire Zawe Ashton (Splendour, Domnar; Fresh Meat, Channel Four) pushes her orgasmic impression of Mistress so far it sounds like a Herbal Essences advert. But then she trembles trying to reconcile disgust and devotion, for her sister, mistress and herself. Even in the extremity of the production, the performance often feels overdone and she is at her best at that final, heart-wrenching moment of strength and submission.
Emotions are kept extreme in this production of The Maids and the core dynamic between servant and master is expanded to probe class, gender and the perverse distortions of all close relationships.
It's an overwhelming, difficult watch that will annoy audience members who like drama subtly naturalistic, and scandalise anyone who has a problem with the C Word. But if you like your theatre bold and unflinching, prepare to be thrilled.
|What||The Maids, Trafalgar Studios review|
|Where||Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
20 Feb 16 – 21 May 16, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£15 - £52|
|Website||Click here to book tickets|