Quirky show cleans up at Cambridge

The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl, The Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday Quirky, oddball, off-the-wall, wacky - Sarah Ruhl's comedy, The Clean House, is all of those and none the worse for that.

Ivan Howlett

The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl, The Arts Theatre, Cambridge April 5

Quirky, oddball, off-the-wall, wacky - Sarah Ruhl's comedy, The Clean House, is all of those and none the worse for that. When her play hit the American theatre scene four years ago, its young writer was soon nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

It's a moving, witty, pared-down romantic comedy, a cerebral play, setting life's emotional and messy tangles against some of the most rigid of our obsessions. Two sisters have opposite phobias about house-cleaning. Lane (Patricia Hodge), a hospital doctor, spends, like her surgeon husband, whatever time she can at work and though she wants her home to be deep-clean fresh, doing it herself is definitely not on her agenda.


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Her bright but unfulfilled sister, Virginia (Joanna McCallum), hugely disappointed with her lack of success in life, is the very reverse. She has become so obsessed with the war against dirt that she volunteers to come secretly and clean her sister's house, an arrangement which becomes easy when she realises that the Brazilian maid, Matilde (Natalia Tena), that Lane has taken on also can't bear cleaning. Matilde is a student comedienne looking for the perfect joke and grieving over the recent deaths of her parents, whom she describes as the funniest people in Brazil.

What would appear to be an impasse is broken when Lane's husband falls in love, and finds his soul mate in a dying Argentinian breast cancer patient, Ana. Rigidity begins to unravel, comic absurdity - like the surgeon's chase to Alaska to find an all-curing yew tree - and compassion come in. The cleaning obsessions collapse, Lane looks after her rival, and Matilde finds the perfect joke but doesn't tell us it, only whispers it in Ana's ear.

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This is a production with a fine cast, well directed. Patricia Hodge is sharp, steely, yet warming, playing superbly off the excellent Joanna McCullum. Eleanor Bron's gives a nicely exotic reading of Ana, and Oliver Cotton is a strong errant surgeon, Charles, and with clever comic input from Natalia Tena, who admits that jokes don't always work well in translation.

So, the practicalities of domesticity, gender, the space we need around us and the absolute need of love, passion - disorder, even - all come into to a play, full of good comic lines and inventive theatricality, which clearly delighted the audience with its whimsy.

Ivan Howlett

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