A mania for spotless order fights a losing battle with the rich, chaotic mess of life in The Clean House, a fresh, amusing oddball of a play by the American dramatist Sarah Ruhl. It's typical of the wacky tactics of the piece that one of the agents of this change is the young Brazilian domestic Matilde (lovely Rebecca Santos), and that she opens the proceedings by telling the audience a long, incomprehensible joke in Portuguese.
The snag with this cleaning lady is that she is too depressed to clean. She recently lost both her parents ("the funniest people in Brazil"). In fact, her mother literally died laughing at one of the father's gags.
You don't hire cleaners for the complexity of their inner life - particularly not if you are Lane (an excellent Patricia Hodge), a busy doctor who needs everything just so. Her answer is to put Matilde on medication.
A less orthodox solution is proposed by Lane's unhappy, underachieving sister Virginia (Selina Cadell). Keeping dirt at bay is the nearest thing she knows to a sense of achievement. She makes a secret deal with Matilde that she will do Lane's cleaning, while the domestic puts her feet up and tries to think of the perfect joke; an enjoyably preposterous situation.
Another perk for Virginia is that folding the laundry enables her to touch the underwear of her dishy brother-in-law, also a doctor. But when she finds sexy, unfamiliar knickers in the washing, she realises that Lane's life is about to unravel.
If one catalyst is a cleaner who doesn't clean, the other is a life force who is dying. It can't be easy for an English actress to play a charismatic but cancer-stricken Argentinian but, as Ana, Eleanor Bron pulls off the feat with grace and aplomb. It's characteristic of the author's quirky comic slant that Ana and the husband (Robert East) fall for each other while she is consulting him about a mastectomy, and that the onset of passion is signposted in captions ("They look at each other. They fall in love some more") flashed on TV monitors. Sam West's chicly designed, very entertaining production shows a remarkably assured grasp of the play's tricksy style.
There's a hilarious sequence where the husband and Ana solemnly inform Lane that, as soul mates, they are obligated by Jewish law to break off previous relationships. This would carry more force if either were a Jew. Ruhl is clearly a talent to watch.
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