Reviews ManchesterNational Published 23 November 2018

Review: The Maids at HOME, Manchester

16 November-1 December

Skirting around sharp edges: James Varney reviews an all-male production of Jean Genet’s The Maids which doesn’t quite deliver on its promises.

James Varney
The Maids at HOME, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

The Maids at HOME, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

and you might come across a puddle in a forest or a field, and the water’s murky, and it looks like the puddle is dark and deep but it’s just dirty – but maybe dirt is just depth in a more internal dimension – and the surface is scummy, with that thin, bright, oily scum that turns the light into shreds of blues and pinks, yknow the Queer colours, the fashion colours, and

The Maids, at HOME, starts by emphasising the biography of Jean Genet – it tells us about him being a petty criminal, going to jail, being a bit of a grotty delinquent youth. They give the impression they want you to think of the play as written by a wretch. It is a fringe response to mid-20th century France, outsider-art. We are to witness some strange depravity, a spit at the world from someone who has been backed into a corner.

Which is interesting, because the action of the play is so internal. It’s all cogs turning in people’s heads and having conversations during which people’s minds and motivations change. It’s all inside the bedroom and hiding from the window, lest they be seen. HOME’s Theatre 1 has been laboriously transfigured into an in-the-round space, there’s a gangway which runs over not-quite the middle of the stage and makes me feel like I’m sat backstage. The space is large and doesn’t feel filled. For all the visuals and shifting lighting and throwing around of sequins and cloth, I feel like I’m watching from a distance. The performers all have mics but everything feels quiet. Maybe if I’d sat on the front row I’d’ve got a better show.

The marketing has fascinated me, because it has been pushing the ‘true crime’ aspect of the show. The original was written in 1947, inspired by the Papin sisters, two maids who murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in 1933. And that’s all very historical now, and I don’t think of The Maids as really concerned with truth. I do wonder if that’s deliberate – perhaps it’s intentional to haul in an audience who want to see a killing, then defer their expectations. Show them an entirely different kind of depravity.

And the flyer, the imagery around the marketing of the production felt like a bit of a prick-tease in the end, too. I was expecting it to be more Queer. I don’t know what that really means. I think it’s daft to think about Queer as something you can quantify so all I can do really is talk about affect. And I only received Queer from it in the opening; there was an energy in the aesthetics that felt dissipated by the end. It starts clowny. The performers are about and pissing about with the audience in the space and nicking things from them and it feels rude. There’s an element of disrespect for the audience which I thought was exciting. And by the end of the play, we’re very much in a traditional place, the audience and stage are separate and the clowns who opened the show are pretty much gone.

Casting an all-male cast I don’t understand. The production acts as though it has done it very deliberately to make a point about something but I can’t see what they’re getting at. I suppose Jean Genet was a man, too, and he wrote the play. What I see onstage isn’t so much an engagement with masculinity as a skirting around the whole thing. Maybe I’m supposed to watch it hungry for some comment on gender that’s never going to come. Like the maids. Skirting about the whole impotence of their attempts to murder their mistress.

There was some good nasty shit – a couple of moments, Danny Lee Wynter as the Mistress comes close in to the camera and picks his teeth and separates his eyelashes using the sharp end of a safety pin. And then those moments, like the autobiographical content at the play’s opening, are gone. And we don’t see the sharp end again. There’s something compelling about the production. It’s beautiful almost all of the time. It’s distant in an unsettling way and it has a casual attitude to violence and the whole thing is fantasy after fantasy – but the violence is often so safe. It peters out. Maybe I find it hard to believe in the energy and power of death and youth and poison when I’m surrounded by old people. Maybe I’m dead inside and that’s my problem.

The Maids runs at HOME, Manchester, until 1 December. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: The Maids at HOME, Manchester Show Info


Directed by Lily Sykes

Written by Jean Genet, in a version by Martin Crimp

Cast includes Jake Fairbrother, Luke Mullins, Danny Lee Wynter

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