Director Jamie Lloyd, who runs his own company under the producing auspices of the Ambassador Theatre Group, now issues a double challenge. He's staging Jean Genet's most discomforting of plays about power, possession and control in the West End's single most uncomfortable theatre — but then we're not supposed to be comfortable watching it.
The play can be a chilling, if not thrilling, journey into the darker recesses of human fantasies for revenge and murder, and Lloyd's urgent, flashy production gives it a lot of punch and pull. But in the end, there's not quite enough weight; too often we're being distracted by buzzing lighting, pantomime-like acting and sensational visual effects (like the stream of falling petals that opens the play) to really care about the characters and their plight.
There's not much plot to speak of in Genet's play, so it all depends on character development. But Lloyd's production locks its three actors into rigid positions from the beginning: the two sisters — maids to Laura Carmichael's elegant but dismissive Mistress — are as enthralled as they are enslaved to her, repeatedly acting out fantasy scenarios of their interactions with her.
It doesn't give Uzo Aruba and Zawe Ashton much to work with; instead, there's a remorseless inevitability to where they will end up, and the play-acting scenes have a pantomimic quality of highly exaggerated moves and reactions.
But Lloyd's production is at least a fantastically watchable exercise in style over substance, stunningly designed and acted out under a fixed coffin-like frame that may cause sightline difficulties from side seats. The three women are riveting to watch as this classic play is made over for today.
"Aduba keeps her anger bottled up, but in Solange’s big climactic speech she unleashes the rage of oppressed people everywhere and seems to glory in the prospect of martyrdom: it is a remarkable tour de force."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Lloyd directs with his customary flair for jolting lighting changes and energising sound-cues...Yet I can’t whip myself into a state of high excitement about the evening as a whole."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The performances are memorably intense...Visual trickery and brash music can’t mask the unevenness of Genet’s writing or the essentially one-note nature of this interpretation."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard