REVIEW: The Clean House

A touching play that’s anything but a joke

The Clean House opens with a set that is, unsurprisingly, spotless – white-sheeted furniture, minimal ornamentation and blank white walls. The sterile whiteness of the set straddles dreams and reality and carries the play’s action from house, to hospital, to bleak frozen wilderness, providing a receptive backdrop for each scene. Mathilde (Victoria Zanotto) is a Brazilian house-cleaner who dreams of creating the perfect joke, and the play follows this touching quest amidst the increasingly complicated relations of her employer’s unconventional family.

Image may contain: Person, People, Human

Photo credits: Tom Davidson

Initially, it felt as though the interactions between the three principal characters of Mathilde, Virginia (Jessica Phillips), and Lane (Rachel-Marie Weiss) were slightly discordant and lacked fluidity, but this apparent disjointedness in fact made for very natural progression of their relationships, and for developing intimacy between these three women, as well as Charles (Evie Butcher) and Ana (Isabel Siragusa). In a way, it seemed appropriate for such whimsical, bold characters to lack real engagement with others until later on; paired with the narrative subtitles which appeared periodically on the walls of the set, this added to the impression of characters whose self-contained, self-absorbed stories slowly begin to interweave. It is interesting that the sole male character, Charles, was played to be a gormless, naive, childlike romantic, demonstrated particularly well in a scene where he defends his extramarital love with an obscure justification from Jewish law, to which Lane responds, masterfully deadpan, with 'you're not Jewish'. Butcher seemed especially suited to this part, playing Charles with an optimism that was at once detestable and heart-warming.

Image may contain: Hair, Afro Hairstyle, Furniture, Couch, Person, People, Human

Photo credits: Tom Davidson

It’s hard to tell whether the play’s energy can be attributed solely to the all-female cast, and the presence of only five main characters (with some doubling by Butcher and Siragusa); regardless, this combination of factors certainly helped the play to bound along with a vivacity and tenderness, that made it a pleasure to watch. The relatively small cast gave the production a sense of intimacy, and the affection that grows between the characters was well-conveyed. There is a lovely moment later on in the play where the house-proud Virginia and the clinically functional Lane seem to have absorbed traits from one another – when faced with Ana’s illness, it is Virginia who seeks the detached, clinical solution (‘should I get a thermometer?’), and Lane who offers sentimental, human support by fetching a blanket for her. Comic timing in this show was played to near-perfection, and here the characters of Mathilde and Virginia shone, with their delivery equal parts dry and uplifting. The marvellous subtlety of certain lines was paired with some empty platitudes that fell rather flat, although this wasn’t such a fault of the performance but of the writing.

Hair seemed to play a larger role in this production than perhaps it should have; often moments of distraction or obstruction were caused by loose strands of hair falling over characters’ faces. In the case of Ana, her long, loose hair complemented the romantic dreaminess of her character, albeit precluding total audience immersion in her performance with every occasion that this hair was brushed or moved back from her face. Zanotto was a confident, strong presence on the stage, and this felt due in part to her striking appearance in all black, hair swept back off her face with a bright bandana.

Photo credits: Tom Davidson

The music in this production was paired wonderfully with the drama in each scene; however, a minor fault was in its execution. At times it was softer, quieter, and came across as more hesitant – to the detriment of the scenes it was framing. This was particularly noticeable in scenes such as Mathilde’s imagining of her parents, where the lively music, played instead at mid-volume, detracted slightly from the fanciful passion of the vision Mathilde was conjuring up. A similar scene featuring her parents in a cafe in fact benefited from an absence of music, instead relying on the exuberant, contagious laughter of the couple to carry the effervescent happiness of the scene. However, one musical scene in particular was robbed of the poignancy it should have carried, as four cast members sang while Charles tended to his dying lover, Ana. This was close to being beautiful – had all four voices been singing in harmony. As it was, the sound was uncomfortable at best, unpleasant at worst, and painfully close to sounding good. Some further rehearsal of this piece would be immensely rewarding.

The Clean House is colourful, vivacious, and moving; it treats life and death with a confidence and humour that is enthralling. And, if you don’t watch it for these reasons, I urge you to go just to observe the particularly brilliant use of a rubber duck.

3.5/5 stars

The Clean House is on at 7pm at the Corpus Playroom until Saturday 10th March