Review – Miss Julie / Black Comedy, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 2nd August 2014

Miss Julie & Black ComedyFor many years Mrs Chrisparkle and I have paid an annual pilgrimage to Chichester, invariably seeing a play at the Minerva in the afternoon and in the Festival Theatre in the evening. This year, it only took one look at the summer schedule to realise that one visit would not be enough. So for 2014 we are having three trips to Chichester – and this was the first!

Rosalie CraigConsidering when I were a lad I did post-graduate research at London University into the effects of the withdrawal of Stage Censorship in 1968, it’s an outrageous confession that I have to make: I’ve never seen a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie before. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I’d even read it. I devoured Ibsen as a teenager, but for some reason Strindberg was never on the same menu. This new Chichester production was therefore a golden opportunity to put that right. Although it was written in 1888, and despite several attempts from producers to stage it, it didn’t get a licence for a public performance in Britain until 1938. Even then, the censor insisted the word “whore” be replaced with “filth”. But the Lord Chamberlain’s Office couldn’t hold the tidal wave of literary appreciation for this play back any more: “The play may disgust some, but it can corrupt nobody. No footman nor chauffeur need fear the more for his virtue for its passing, not society disintegrate in one glorious orgy in the servants’ hall”. That must have been a relief.

Shaun EvansSo what is (or was) so shocking about this play? Miss Julie comes from noble stock but she acts like a guttersnipe. Her one desire is to seduce the valet Jean, to steal him from under the nose of his virtuous fiancée Kristin. Once she is “maiden no more” the character of Jean changes somewhat. He manipulates Miss Julie to steal money from her father so they can run away to start a hotel together; you can see his cruelty in the “beheading the bird” scene. Once her courage goes and she realises she has no alternative but to end it all, Jean encourages her to slit her throat with a shaving razor. It’s true – it’s not what you’d call a “nice” play. But it’s very powerful – and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ new version is a rivetingly disturbing watch, even allowing for its wry treatment of the few passages of dark humour.

Emma HandyAndrew D Edwards’ excellent set is very naturalistic (as it should be for Strindberg), with a decent kitchen table and a proper working sink, but otherwise quite bare and comfortless; and Jamie Glover’s direction is taut and tense, letting the words do the work. Rosalie Craig is a very convincing Miss Julie – bewitchingly seductive with more than a touch of the dominatrix in the way she abuses her position of authority. You can just imagine her with her ex-fiancé, her insisting that he jump over her riding whip – you really wouldn’t want to mess with her. But as her plans fall apart she shows great vulnerability too, and the final scene, when she is completely trapped in the web of her own making, is very moving. Shaun Evans (who I’ve only ever seen before as TV’s Endeavour), plays Jean as a great manipulator; very calculating, very deliberate, innately violent – very much the fire with which Miss Julie plays and gets burned. There’s also a superb performance by Emma Handy as Kristin, the cook; a realist who knows she cannot compete with Miss Julie for Jean’s attentions, whether it be because of status or vivacity. It’s a very intense one hour twenty minutes, demanding your full attention but rewarding you with powerful story-telling and a fine production.

Robyn AddisonYou probably couldn’t have a greater contrast for the second of the two one-act plays, even though both deal with infidelity. Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy first appeared in 1965, also at Chichester, with Derek Jacobi as Brindsley and Maggie Smith as Clea. Kenneth Tynan had commissioned the play to be produced by the National Theatre together with a revival of – you guessed it – Miss Julie; so this double-bill could only have been more appropriate had it happened next year as a 50th anniversary production. If you don’t already know – it’s the simple story of Brindsley, an aspiring but impoverished artist, and his squeaky-voiced girlfriend Carol,Jonathan Coy hosting a small party in order to impress a) millionaire art collector Bamberger who just might buy one of Brindsley’s pieces and b) Carol’s blusterful military Colonel father in the hope he will approve of their marriage. To give the flat a more artistic flair, they temporarily nick furniture and antiques from their prissy neighbour Harold (who’s away for the weekend, and who would never let anyone else touch his prize objects). Just before the Colonel and the millionaire are due to show up, a fuse goes, and the flat is plunged into darkness.

Mike GradyOr into light, as it happens, as the whole play is presented the other way round. When they have no power and cannot see, the stage is lit; when the electricity is working and everyone acts normally, the stage is dark. Matches and torches get struck and are switched on, at which time the stage is half-lit. It’s a very inventive construct. Cue for a hilarious farce, with a barking Colonel, a batty old lady, an unexpectedly returned prissy neighbour, an even more unexpectedly returned ex-girlfriend, and a perfect case of mistaken identity between the millionaire art collector and the man from the London Electricity Board. It’s one of those farces where you have to keep your teeth permanently clenched and you peer at the stage between gaps in your crossed hands, so cringe-making are the scrapes that our hero digs himself into. At one stage the elderly lady seated to my left was laughing so much she had to grab hold of my arm to steady herself. It really is an extraordinarily funny play and is given a deliciously funny production, with some great performances and fantastic comic business.

Samuel DuttonAt the heart of it is a brilliantly physical performance by Paul Ready as Brindsley, tripping over carpets, bumping on his arse all the way down the stairs, walking into doorframes and generally wreaking havoc for an hour or so. However, I think the two supreme comic moments were when Jonathan Coy (always an asset to an comedy cast) as the Colonel, sat down on the replacement rocking chair, and Samuel Dutton, as the diminutive Bamberger, “discovered” the cellar. There’s a lovely performance by Marcia Warren as Miss Furnival, who’s played baffled old ladies as long as I can remember, discovering the drinks cabinet for herself; and also excellent support from Robyn Addison as posh totty Carol, whose sweetness turns sour on encountering her rival, and comedy stalwart Mike Grady Paul Readyas the Germanic and artistically enlightened Schuppanzigh. Also taking part from the Miss Julie cast are Shaun Evans as Harold, brimming with tart petulance when he discovers that Brindsley’s been seeing other women, and Rosalie Craig as a thoroughly unpredictable and sparky Clea, intent on making the situation as bad for Brindsley as possible. The cast work together seamlessly to create a great ensemble performance – and the audience loved it. The whole double bill forms a splendidly enjoyable production, balancing out harsh tragedy with uproarious farce. One more week to go – it closes on 9th August.

Marcia WarrenP. S. Mrs C and I thought we would try the Minerva Brasserie for a pre-theatre lunch. What a good idea that was! Three fantastic courses and some cheese, and a top bottle of Chablis, perfectly chilled, all served with a friendly politeness and in a very comfortable setting too. There’s excellent provision for coeliacs too, with plenty of gluten-free choices, including unexpected g-f bread to accompany the cheese, which Mrs C said was really yummy. We’ll certainly be doing that again!