Cleaning, like politics, is a dirty business, in Colm Maher’s new comedy
Dirty secrets: Stephanie Kelly and Anne Kent in Cleaners
Axis: Ballymun, Dublin
Cleaning is a dirty business in Colm Maher’s new comedy for axis:Ballymun. Set in the bowels of a four-star hotel in the locker room of the cleaning staff, everything seems spotless on the surface.
A novice cleaner, Ellie, high on anxiety and short of fuse, meets an old pro, Jewel, a minibar maven and practitioner of store-bought Buddhism, who inducts her protégée into the dark arts of the trade: how to sleuth out the peccadilloes of guests, prey on their prejudices and extract better tips.
But this is really a turf war in which Anne Kent’s senior hand is grooming an accomplice in Stephanie Kelly’s bright ingénue while neutralising a threat. “Everyone in the hotel needs my help,” says Kent, beneath a plum red smock, two blue slabs of eye shadow and a beehive hairdo that seems to suggest otherwise. And although she speaks a reassuring language of calm, she is more inclined towards quasi-political jargon. “The minibar run is not a solo office,” she tells Ellie imperiously, like someone who can either sense a coup or who has been binge-watching House of Cards .
In short, this is a political satire: there will be backstabbing in the back of house, skulduggery in the scullery, and Jewel, it transpires, is the Machiavelli of minibar runs.
“You never state it, you intimate it,” she tells Ellie. “People misunderstand things when you’re being explicit.”
Fittingly, Maher is an intricate plotter, creating a tangle of offstage intrigue between the hierarchy of management and the idiosyncrasies of the guests, where the delicate balance of power is held by the cleaners.
Is there a similar tussle for the play? Mark O’Brien’s production is alive to Maher’s darker comedy, but it would far prefer to keep things lighter, with Kelly delivering her part with an unfaltering level of hand-on-hip sass, whether her character is naively learning the ropes or attempting a power-grab for control of the staff Lotto syndicate. For her part, Kent plays Jewel’s faux Buddhist meditation for uncomplicated laughs, when it might have more subversive undercurrents of control.
Anything else, though, is more than the production is willing to give, where clunky scene transitions and repetitive music cues seem determined to make as few demands of its audience as possible. Cleaners , it decides, has another job to do.