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FringeReview UK 2016

The Clean House

New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Comedic, Drama, International, Magical Realism, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre, Upstairs


Low Down

Sarah Ruhl’s 2005 Pulitzer-shortlisted The Clean House at the New Venture Theatre, Brighton is directed by Sam Chittenden, and designed by Adam Kincaid in the still-new Upstairs Theatre. It’s lit by Strat Mastoris with Rima Stankute’s video FX up centre and raised, mainly functioning as a story-board.


Sam Chittenden directs Sarah Ruhl’s 2005 Pulitzer-shortlisted The Clean House – the latest production at the New Venture Theatre, Brighton. Designed by Adam Kincaid in the still-new Upstairs Theatre it features a simple white sofa and small table, with stage left a balcony. It’s magically lit on occasion by Strat Mastoris with Rima Stankute’s video FX up centre and raised, mainly functioning as a story-board.


Brazilian Matilde the maid to married doctors Lane and Charles, tells jokes. Brazilian jokes which spoken in Brazilian we’re not likely to get. She relates too – in English – how her mother died laughing at her father’s joke – though we’re not told what it is for health reasons. She searches for the perfect killer line though understandably fears finding it, so seems condemned to infinite jest. Matilde can’t stand cleaning, though.


However Dr Lane’s sister Victoria does, now offering to fill the empty ritual of her day – Greek scholarship having failed her. Lane discovers the ruse, though not the stray undies the others spot. Lane’s solidly devoted husband Charles has fallen in love with older Ana on whom he’s just performed a mastectomy. Then wondrously plausible narratives take over.


Threaded with Matilde’s need to tell jokes – which delivers the plotline – we’re treated to how Kerri Frost’s uptight Lane unbends, how Jozede Scrivener’s beautifully expressive Victoria – each gesture notched to warm irony – bridges subsequent estrangements; how Ana’s friendship with Matilde extends beyond apple-picking by the sea – apples are thrown close by the audience – strewn into a path of love and acceptance. The full sheen of this quietly magical drama focuses when the vision clears and an absolute need for jokes assumes an epiphany.


To reveal why Charles shoots off to Alaska to uproot a yew tree, why in 2004 telegrams are sent even from the land of Sarah Palin, would be telling. Minor clunks might be expected in transposing this tale to Sussex, since here a Brazilian and Argentinean are more unexpected, and a trip to Alaska even more surreal than just a hop to another state. It hardly seems to matter.


Shaila Alvarez’ Matilde is both personally and physically expressive, like Scrivener able to render something aching in a single glance, flecked to laughter. Diane Robinson’s Ana (she also doubles as Matilde’s mother in dumb show) triumphs in the enormous task of appearing idiomatic in Spanish, and talking English with a strutting opacity laced with Ana’s stoic courage. As does Frost’s unbending Lane whose warmth tricks out confronted with something bigger than her personal experience, which she now invites to her home.


Against the authoritative Scrivener, Alvarez, Lane and Robinson, Jeremy Crow’s normal amplitude is shoehorned into a few expressive speeches as Charles, and mute in Matilde’s father – his parts aren’t the most developed and it needs someone like Crow to flesh them. Crow exudes a puzzled warmth, a baffled ardent awakening to shock him out of his medical carapace.


Steve Hoar’s recordings of mostly Villa-Lobos piano music (with a vintage Stokowski of Bachianas brasileiras No. 5) punctuate hauntingly, as does his setting of ‘Medicina meum quod est amoris’ raptly sung by Crow. Hoar captures the contrapuntal curb and pointillistic wildness of this vast repertoire alongside lesser-known pieces – it perfectly projects the fabulous ripeness of Ruhl’s writing as well as this production.


The versatility of some set items – the sofa turning into an operating table for instance – calls for special praise; the versatile FX and lucid unfussy design takes on the shimmering clarity of dream. Chittenden paces this with clean elegance, counterpointing the messiness of existence with the neatness of fable, and the human need to straddle, even celebrate both. She allows this extremely fine ensemble to explore their own weight. Movement too is full of economy so when a character paces across upstage, you know why they pull focus and laugh. We get the joke and far from killing us it offers us a small lesson in loving.