Lyttelton, National Theatre, playing until 8 September 2018.
Writer: Polly Stenham
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Cast: Julie - Vanessa Kirby/Francesca Knight; Jean - Eric Kofi Abrefa; Kristina - Thalissa Teixeira
Photographs - Richard H Smith
Julie, of the title, is a hedonistic, troubled young woman in her early 30s. At her wealthy father’s Hampstead house, she throws a rave for her birthday with an intoxicated crowd of relative strangers whose disregard for their reckless hostess and her open house is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things. Her father’s embedded staff, Jean and his fiancee Kristina, observe the drug-fueled antics of the party-goers with increasing dismay.
As Julie spirals into despair, it transpires that the source of her troubles stems from her mother’s suicide and her father’s detachment. As the play progresses Julie and Jean become entwined and fantasize about running away together.
“The difference in the updated Julie, is that wealth does not translate as superiority, just happenstance.”
Described as “after Strindberg”, Polly Stenham’s play drops the “Miss” and proceeds as a contemporary variation on the master's classic. As in Miss Julie, social division is solely to do with wealth. The difference in the updated Julie, is that wealth does not translate as superiority, just happenstance. Julie goes out of her way to brush off the very idea of her privilege. When she is taken to task by Jean, who presumes her father’s money will fund their escape, she points out that she has no personal funds. She is privileged but dependent. The staff work but they are independent. Curiously, whilst this dynamic is explored through Julie and Jean's affair, the juxtaposition of black and white is not articulated as a question of racial inequality in the play which comes across as an oversight.
The play dwells on the intricacies of Julie’s and Jean’s common grievances on the human condition - unfulfilled, unappreciated and neglected. For some time, the whole sorry state of it all has no direction and drags. But, after a while, if you reconcile yourself to the pointlessness and the obsessions, it becomes absorbing or at least lulling. So when the crashes happen, everyone (even the pet budgie) suffers and Stenham’s play demands attention.
Substitute Francesca Knight won a heartfelt applause for delivering a string of soul-bearing monologues. Her co-star, Eric Kofi Abrefa, played his part with precision, although slightly too taught at times for a cavalier driver who oversteps the mark. Thalissa Teixeira as Kristina played just the right dose of friendliness and professionalism for a contemporary housekeeper. And the ravers, who punctuate the performance with fascinating moves (assisted by slick stage effects) remind us why we crave and regret any part in hedonism.