Anyone buying tickets for The Maids on the basis of the advance publicity is in for a shock.

The copy entices by offering a thriller based on a famous French murder of a rich woman by her two maids, and an image of two androgynous women reclining in a debauched manner. That’s the trouble with ‘brochure theatre’, your deadline for marketing is so far in advance of the production you have to make something up. But I forgive them, because, whatever it isn’t, The Maids is terrific.

Writer Jean Genet was born in 1910 and was a hero of the existentialist movement in Paris in the 1950s. He spent the first 35 years of his life in and out of prison and in the Foreign Legion, from which he was expelled for an act of gross indecency with a man. He wrote his first book, Our Lady of the Flowers, in jail in 1944. And he wrote that he became a thief because the world expected him to, and spent the rest of his life celebrating the choice “I recognise in thieves, traitors and murderers, in the ruthless and the cunning, a deep beauty – a sunken beauty”, which is all you need to know to ‘get’ The Maids.

It’s a more intimate production than usual at Manchester’s HOME, as they’ve covered the stalls and created a space in the round, which works really well, and they use a staircase, bridge and video to good effect. But in the end it’s the extraordinary action between the two maids, Jake Fairbrother and Luke Mullins, and their mistress Danny Lee Winter, which grips. They’re all blokes, you’ll notice, and while Fairbrother and Mullins have adopted an androgynous style, Winter gives us a brilliant female impersonation.

It’s a dark, complicated piece in which, it is true, murders are enacted, but not as we know them. The text is layered, the characters move in and out of roles as they play with each other, and the sexual tension is drawn so tight it could snap at any minute.

It’s impressive how well the actors understand this complex material and make it live for us. That must be due in some large measure to the director Lily Sykes who is giving her first show at HOME. Sykes worked in Germany for ten years after she graduated here, and has clearly learnt a thing or two. On the evidence of The Maids, can she come back again please? 

Designer Ruari Murchison is a regular at the National Theatre and the RSC and has gifted the actors a deceptively simple space in which to play. Jan Schoewer’s music and Zoe Spurr’s lighting are used subtly and sometimes subliminally to build tension and create mood. They’re both first-timers at HOME and they can come back too if they like.

It’s expected to run at 95 minutes without an interval, although when I saw it at the last preview they were still cutting. But I didn’t itch for an interval, which is a good sign.  There were a few bemused faces afterwards, which I put down to the advance publicity, but if you’ve read this I think you’ll have an idea of what you’re in for. To paraphrase Jean Brodie, “for those who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they will absolutely love”.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Photos by Jonathan Keenan

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The Maids is at HOME until December 1, 2018. For more information, click here