Arts: Theatre: Below stairs

THE MAIDS YOUNG VIC LONDON
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The Independent Culture
FIRST, DARKNESS. Then, like mice sensing the all-clear, the two of them enter the bedroom, bent double in attitudes of exaggerated servitude, and scuttle about - from armchair to dressing table, piano to wardrobe - with barely contained euphoria. Light switches are clicked on and off, just for the thrill of it; a casket of jewellery is opened to mimed bedazzlement. It's a good five minutes before a word is whispered.

From the start, Katie Mitchell's production of The Maids takes its time, furtively savouring each moment of transgressive freedom enjoyed by Genet's fantasising chambermaid heroines, Solange and Claire, whose role-reversal ritual veers from a harmless imitation of their Mistress's lifestyle to the active pursuit of her death. For the most part, this painstaking strategy reaps huge dividends, uncovering great feeling, warmth and humour in this defiantly complex, if overprotracted, play about play- acting. Inevitably though, there are points when the minutes drag by.

That it's always easy to follow is no minor achievement. Martin Crimp has contributed a lucid new translation that embraces the mock-ceremonious vitality of Genet's maidspeak without making it sound as hideously floral as their aprons. The wordless opening, establishing distinct patterns of movement, is also helpful: Solange and Claire are given a shape prior to Solange pretending to be "Claire" and Claire adopting the spectacular scarlet dress and thinly veiled snobbery of her Mistress.

Aisling O'Sullivan's Solange is the rough diamond of the double-act; her long, hard looks and game-for-a-fight posture provide a disturbingly comic gracelessness. Anastasia Hille's Claire is an altogether more delicate and timid creature. They circle each other in bickering symbiosis, their energy levels visibly falling as they are derailed from their power-play by flashes of jealousy and the failure of a previously hatched plot to damage the Mistress by framing her lover.

Locating a note of self-disgust even in the most perfectly parodied moments, these two fine actresses show us how desperately close their characters are to losing all sense of identity and sanity, and how death becomes their only true means of self-expression. In the near-permanent gloom of the Young Vic stage (curiously furnished so as to restrict views in the front rows), a vision of hell is realised that goes far beyond a bygone class-system.

If there is a fault in these two performances, it is that they are too likeable, and not half as poisonous as the camomile tea they so hopelessly proffer their employer; they should be as much Ugly Sisters as Cinders. Which is not to say that pantomime acting is required, a trap that Angela Clerkin, as the Mistress, falls into. The shock of unexpected kindness is there, but, as a result of Clerkin's over-emphatic delivery-style, no sense of either cunning or compassion. The crucial scene in which the maids' private world is intruded upon becomes, perversely, the most scripted- sounding. In a revival that otherwise treads well Genet's fine line between fakery and feeling , this instance of poor service is regrettable, but no grounds for dismissal. Good, then, but no tip.

To 7 August, 0171-928 6363

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