The Maids, Southwark Playhouse London

3.00

It's no wonder that, in the opening scene of Jean Genet's play, a maid loses her temper with her mistress. With high-camp disdain, the lady of the house ridicules the servant for being dowdy and dirty, for leaving on her black washing-up gloves outside the kitchen: "I suppose that's the way you think you'll tempt the milkman." (A pity , one thinks, that the actress in the velvet gown is so insecure and stagey in her assumption of grandeur)

It's no wonder that, in the opening scene of Jean Genet's play, a maid loses her temper with her mistress. With high-camp disdain, the lady of the house ridicules the servant for being dowdy and dirty, for leaving on her black washing-up gloves outside the kitchen: "I suppose that's the way you think you'll tempt the milkman." (A pity , one thinks, that the actress in the velvet gown is so insecure and stagey in her assumption of grandeur)

Even so, it does seem a bit extreme for the maid to turn on her employer with the announcement "I hate you!", strike her, and say, "I'd follow you into hell sooner than leave my hatred at the gates!" What follows, however, is even more startling: with the real mistress's return imminent, the fine dress has to go back to the cupboard, and the second maid has to get back into uniform.

Calling The Maids disturbing is like saying that you've found your dog has one flea. Written in 1947, the play is almost endearing for its ability to make theatregoers of every shade of conventional opinion feel outraged and dissatisfied. Some of the shock of its first appearance has been dissipated by a world in which house servants are a source of embarrassment or a happy dream, but the mutual contempt of maids and mistress still has a sting.

So does the effect of servitude on Claire and her sister, Solange - while they may play dressing-up games of revenge, they have so absorbed society's disgust for them that, when a scheme to kill their employer goes wrong, Claire drinks the poisoned tea. But is this true contrition, or merely suicide as a form of social climbing? Madame's lover is a criminal whom the maids have betrayed to the police; yet, instead of being brought low, their mistress soars even further above them by her goodness - she is ready to follow him into exile. Are not Claire and Solange play-acting once more - the roles of those two holy outsiders, the criminal and saint?

For the French, The Maids had reverberations with their own servant class - Solange's wish to dismember her mistress recalls the 1933 case of two maids who butchered a woman and her children. But it also echoed colonial fear and guilt: are the maids, who tell the mistress that they adore her, simply lying and biding their time, or is their love real? Are they taking the revenge of those who are not loved in return?

Steve Ventura's production, for the Tour de Force Theatre Company, of an excellent translation by Martin Crimp, is welcome for its timely presentation of these still unsettling questions. But force, unfortunately, is what this show lacks. The actresses playing Claire and Solange should practically choke a viewer with their blood lust and longing. They are far too polite, and the result is decidedly weak tea.

To 1 May (020-7620 3494)

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