HELEN PEACOCKE talks to Patricia Hodge about her starring role in The Clean House being staged at the Oxford Playhouse

Critics describe Sarah Ruhl's play The Clean House as a comedy with the laughs coming thick and fast, but actress Patricia Hodge, who plays the lead role, says there's much more to it than that.

Patricia said that when people speak about plays, they like to put them in a category, but she says this very unusual and demanding work defies all categories.

"The Clean House doesn't fit into one box," she said.

"There are themes Sarah threads through this play which, in many ways, echo in something else," she said, adding that Sarah is a remarkable young playwright.

"There are certainly no wasted words, not a single thing that does not earn its place has been included - this is poetry rather than out and out comedy," she said, empasising that it is not Harold Pinter in style.

Sarah is a fresh, compelling and versatile playwright who is emerging as a powerful presence in American theatre.

In The Clean House, which is an excellent example of her work, she skilfully searches and finds a poignant way of mixing humour with death.

Patricia plays Lane, the woman dressed in white who has got everything - a successful surgeon for a husband and her own busy career as a doctor. All she asks of life is a clean house.

But if you want a clean house, particularly if the decor is white on white, you also need an enthusiastic cleaning lady, capable of keeping it spotless. Unfortunately, Matilde, her young cleaner from Brazil, hates cleaning. All she wants to do is become a comedian.

Apparently, Sarah's inspiration for this play came from a chance remark overheard at a party, when she eavesdropped on a doctor explaining to those listening that his cleaning lady was depressed and won't clean the house. When he added that he took her to the hospital and had her put on medication but she still wouldn't clean, Sarah had the stimulus she needed to write a quirky, touching play which made her a Pulitzer prize-finalist.

As the play progresses it becomes clear that Lane's sister Virginia loves to clean and eventually comes to strike up an unlikely alliance with Matilde, which in turn leads to a secret arrangement and a reasonably clean house.

Then comes the revelation that Lane's husband Charles is having an affair with Ana, a 67-year-old patient suffering from terminal cancer. It's at this point a moving layer of poignancy is added to the script and you realise that every character is making a journey, Lane most particularly.

Patricia is no stranger to her part. Three years ago she was associated with this play's first rehearsed reading at the Old Vic, and by chance she happened to be in New York during the end of its run at the Lincoln Center, so she saw it performed there.

She was also involved in a studio production of The Clean House at Sheffield, when the possibility of putting it on in the UK was muted.

Patricia was also suited to the role as she has now established herself as a player of ladies of distinctly elevated backgrounds.

One such role, for which Patricia is particularly well known, is as Phyllida Erskin-Brown, the well-spoken barrister in the television series Rumpole of the Bailey. She also played the aristocratic amateur sleuth Jemima Shaw who sniffed out crimes among the nobility in Lady Antonia Fraser's Jemima Shore Investigates. The part she played in the television adaptation of Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, the arrogant and man-stealing best-selling novelist Mary Fisher, is also a wealthy and well-connected character.

Speaking from her London hotel, prior to coming to Oxford, where The Clean House opens on Monday at the Playhouse, she admitted that perhaps she would know the city better if her son had not decided to go to the other place when choosing his university.

Unlike so many popular British actors, she has never paced the boards at Oxford Playhouse, her association with our city is linked primarily with the Inspector Morse television series. She was filmed in Oxford a while ago when she acted as the linchpin, introducing college locations for a performance of Morse music in the Albert Hall.

Appearing alongside Patricia Hodge in The Clean House are Joanna McCallum, Eleanor Bron and Natalia Tena.

The Clean House is from Monday to Saturday, March 8. Tickets for this show can be booked by ringing the Playhouse box office on 01865 305305, or you can go to www.oxfordplayhouse.com