The Clean House – April 2008


By Sarah Ruhl

Directed by John Dove

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 9th April 2008

On the drive back, Steve and I decided this play was like a cross between Terms of Endearment and Art. There was quite an emphasis on relationships, and the play had several emotional moments, but the whole piece had an abstract, almost surreal air to it, and the emotions were never allowed to get too sentimental. The casting was excellent, and the performances likewise, but I found I never really got into the play as much as I would have liked.

What I did like was the set, the crossover action, the performances and the humour. The set was fairly simple. At the back was a doorway with some classical looking architecture above it which later turned into a balcony overlooking the sea. To our right was a window, and to our left a wall with a moveable table – a cross between a breakfast bar and an ironing board – and various cubby holes. Just off centre was a large white sofa with coffee table, and another chair completed the set. In addition, there were two large TV screens on either side, which gave us important information from time to time.

The plot: a seriously important lady doctor (Lane) has hired a young Brazilian woman to clean her house. She doesn’t have time to do it herself, and probably wouldn’t know how. (She didn’t know where her blankets were kept, for a start.) The young woman, Matilde, pronounced, as far as I could make out, Ma-til-je, is the daughter of the two funniest people in Brazil, or at least in her small home town in Brazil, and since they only died less than a year ago, and she doesn’t actually like cleaning (it makes her sad), she’s depressed. Lane has helped her as much as she could – got her into hospital, made sure she got anti-depressants – but to no avail. The play effectively starts with Lane’s sister, Virginia, offering to spend her free and all too empty afternoons cleaning her sister’s house in Matilde’s place. Apparently cleaning makes her feel good, although from her confidences to the audience, it mainly seems to stave off thoughts of suicide, death and other morbid subjects.

In the course of cleaning her sister’s house, Virginia and Matilde discover signs that Charles, Lane’s husband, is cheating on his wife. Flamboyant underpants are not Lane’s style, and when various pairs of sexy knickers turn up in the wash, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Shortly afterwards, Lane discovers Virginia’s contribution to the clean house, and Charles announces he’s found his soul mate. (He used a Jewish term which I have no idea how to spell, always assuming I could remember it.) Apparently, in Jewish custom, this means he’s compelled to leave his wife for the other woman, who in this case is Ana, someone Charles has been treating for breast cancer (he’s a surgeon). Lane isn’t impressed by this decision, Virginia is happy for the new couple, and Matilde gets to split her time between the two households, on condition she tells Ana a joke every day. (Matilde is trying to think up the perfect joke – it’s a family thing.) Ana gets ill again, Charles heads off to Alaska to find a specific type of yew tree to bring back and plant in their garden to help cure her, but Ana dies from laughing at Matilde’s perfect joke before he can get back. Weird, or what?

What saved us all from maudlin sentimentality was the humour. Some of this came through the crossovers between the two locations. When the balcony comes forward during the second half, the characters on it throw various items over the rail, where they not only land on the stage below, they also land on the characters who are still in the sitting room, and who definitely notice them. First it’s apples, then it’s clothes. Also, just as we learn of Ana’s recurrence of her cancer, we see Charles on his quest for the special yew, all kitted out in winter gear, walking across the back of the stage as snow descends from the flies. Hilarious. He walks across a few times, and each time the snow pours down. Finally, we see him carrying this enormous tree that he’s cut down, and there’s a message about how he can’t get it on the plane, so he’s coming back some other way.

Another trick was to show us Matilde’s parents during her conversations with the audience. Oliver Cotton and Eleanor Bron doubled these parts with Charles and Ana. They would be trundled across the back of the stage on some seat or platform, doing whatever Matilde recalled them doing. Later, when Lane is imagining what Charles and Ana are up to, these two appear again, and when Matilde arrives on stage she’s horrified to find her parents in someone else’s imagination. It was a nice touch, and went along well with these overlapping realities.

I should also explain that some of the characters each have several goes at talking to the audience. In fact, the play opens that way. The TV screens showed various headings – character’s names, dates and places, and one time a translation of the Portuguese that Ana and Matilde are communicating in. Meantime, the characters Matilde, Lane and Virginia get to talk to us directly, setting the scene for what’s to come. Matilde probably did this the most. Her first “soliloquy” was done standing centre stage and telling jokes in Portuguese, to the accompaniment of rapturous canned laughter. Apparently, she’s very good at jokes. In Portuguese.

Apart from all this, there’s a lovely moment when Virginia loses it completely and wrecks Lane’s sitting room, even pulling the curtain rail and curtains off the window. It made for a messy end to the play, as there was no time to tidy anything up, but it was fun to see her let rip.

As I’ve said, the performances were excellent. Matilde was played by Natalia Tena, whom we’ve seen in the Shared Experience Bronte. Lane was played by Patricia Hodge, and Virginia by Joanna McCallum, so it was a pretty high-powered production all round. Probably not a play we’d choose to see again, but still good fun on the night.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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