Friday, 17 June 2016

After Miss Julie

With no sparks flying between the two leads, this Strindberg adaptation seems sordid rather than sexy

Written by Robert Gore-Langton
Robert-Gore-Langton-176Miss Julie was written (in 1888) by August Strindberg, who with this play – about a night of passion between a mistress and a servant – earned himself a reputation as the dirty old man of European drama. His depiction of sex between the classes pre-dates the more famous Lady Chatterley’s Lover by a generation.

In this new touring revival, which opened at the Theatre Royal Bath, Helen George – Trixie of Call The Midwife fame – stars in a version (hence the altered title) by the playwright Patrick Marber. He has cleverly relocated the action to the English country mansion of a socialist peer and sets the play on the night of the landslide Labour election victory in July 1945, the idea being that the fires of passion are stoked by the wind of imminent social change. The whole concept of Upstairs Downstairs is on the way out.

While Miss Julie’s father (whom we never meet) celebrates Labour’s success in London and his servants enjoy a boozy knees-up in the barn, Miss Julie seeks out her father’s chauffeur, John, in the kitchen, here beautifully designed by Colin Richmond with dingy tiles and an Aga. John already has a girlfriend – his intended is played with knowing primness by Amy Cudden – but Miss Julie is irresistible.

Staged without an interval, the mistress and the chauffeur getting together feels a bit like a plotline from Downton Abbey. (This stage version dates back to 2003 so it got there first.) But Helen George doesn’t really have the sense of reckless suicidal abandon Strindberg requires. She is never really believable as the randy, cut-glass thoroughbred on the brink of a breakdown.

She drapes her long legs over the work surfaces, cadges cigarettes from John, flirts madly, and one thing leads to another. After their night of off-stage debauchery, she reasserts herself by snapping, ‘Remember your position!’ With his mind still in the bedroom, the chauffeur replies with deadpan insolence, ‘Which one, Madam? There were so many.’

It’s a much-needed laugh in a production, directed by Anthony Banks, that unhelpfully blurs the class distinctions. Voices on stage these days are never given a second thought and Helen George sounds like a strangulated version of her midwife persona.

While John (Richard Flood) flits nicely from deference to defiance there’s little chemistry between the two leads. In the morning-after scenes, stains on Miss Julie’s dress make plain she was a virgin. But too often this production appears grimly sordid rather than erotic. The electricity is missing.

It’s a shame, as Helen George is a skilled and very appealing actress in the right role, but a Miss Julie she’s not. 

On tour until 23 July: 0844-871 7615,

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