When they said ‘black comedy’ I thought they meant the play, not finding a seat. In this production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, lighting design leaves the audience in almost complete darkness as we enter – the short-sighted among us almost clambered into seats that were already occupied. Meanwhile on stage an intense and stylised pre-set emerges in a red glare, while emo blares out of the Lion and the Unicorn’s sound system. Costume drama meets Slimelight.

Genet’s 1940s story is a tawdry one; two maids plot to kill their daffy mistress, acting out her death again and again, but never pulling it off. With only three characters, one setting and repetitive dialogue, it would need powerhouse acting to stop the audience getting stuck in a merry-go-round of tedium. Instead, the piece is conducted at the relentless pace and pitch of a busy day at Albert Square and leaves the audience reeling.

Pandemonium Performance, in a nod to Genet’s original intention that men should be cast in all three roles, has the role of the Madame played in drag by Chris Stevenson who, with his imperious tones,  is a wig and an iron will away from being a French Lady Bracknell. As well as putting another middle-aged actress out of a part, this decision undermines the text by setting up a divide between the slim and beautiful maids and chunky, ungainly Madame, reducing her to a figure of fun, where for the play to be truly compelling she needs to be both repellent and charismatic – someone they love to imitate, craving the reflected glamour of her dresses and furs.

Similarly, the maids are not the dirty, unattractively dressed skivvies of the text, but elegant beings who pluck desultorily at each others’ hair and clothes, and seem incapable of purposeful movement. True, the characters are obsessed with themselves and the airs and graces that divide the social classes, but there needs to be glimpses of broad daylight and human feeling between their painfully mannered, head-in-the-clouds fantasies of killing their mistress. Claire (Katy Mulhern) seems to be channelling Sweeney Todd‘s Mrs Lovett with a thoroughly unsympathetic variety of hammy cockney malevolence and speeches that are frequently garbled, making the already complex text confusing, and the layers of reality and pretence difficult to unpick.

The somewhat clichéd set design by Linda Bloomfield relies on curtains and suspended picture frames that, alas, never unite to form the window explicitly demanded by the play, leading to the apparently unintentional visual gag of an actress miming drawing a curtain, while inches away an actual curtain is untouched. Paul Linghorn’s direction similarly seems to prioritise style over substance, and aesthetics over content, never quite putting over the meaning of the text. At two hours, this is over-long for an atmosphere piece; the company have dusted off an interesting text, but  sadly they seem to have swept its fiddliest bits under the carpet.

The Maids played at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. For more information on the show see the Lion and Unicorn Theatre website.