A woman’s body lies on the floor. The chambermaid is covered in blood – but she appeals to us that it’s not what it seems. And it’s definitely not. Is this is a dark, dark comedy? Or gore-soaked horror? Or a smartly-written social satire? It is a bit of all those things, but one thing is for sure – you should definitely be kinder to Customer Services.
A guest has returned to her room looking for a watch that she has lost. The chambermaid is taken by surprise, but she dutifully hunts for the watch while the guest orders her around. But when accusations of stealing are made, things turn unpleasant; there’s a struggle and an accident. It was self-defence of course… but then again, it’s not as if she wasn’t asking for it, what with her bad manners and nasty attitude.
Ladykiller is a complex play, touching on such aspects of modern life as jobs that involve clearing up the mess others leave behind, but where you can't complain because the job is too important to risk. There’s also a succinct critique of the misleading portrayal of murder that we get from TV crime dramas, and a psychological guide to killing, from the different kinds of murderer to the best ways to get away with it. It is addressed with a thoroughness that means it is most definitely not for the faint-hearted; there was certainly a point at which I felt decidedly queasy.
Delivering all of this, Hannah McClean is tremendous, utterly compelling in the very different personas she adopts – whether she's portraying naivete and fear, or coolly discussing how murderers get away with it. She makes full use of the small performance space, moving to the corners and addressing the audience before flashing back into action, or collapsing into a chair.
Underlying everything is the investigation and subversion of stereotypes of women, both as murderers and victims. The play explores how women are assumed to be only capable of certain kinds of murder – and how, as victims, they can be blamed if they are seen to have transgressed the normative bounds of social behaviour. As we see, these are all perceptions which could be manipulated by a clever killer.
Though Madeline Gould's script is fearsomely intelligent, there is so much detail in its very nuanced and subtle arguments that it risks being overpowered by the sheer power and horror of the central performance. The irony is that we leave the play thinking about the special case – the exception to the rule – rather than the broader points about our narrow perceptions of what women are capable of.
However, I really shouldn’t complain about a play as smart as this being combined with such a mesmeric performance. It’s a rare treat, combining humour, horror and intelligence.