Julie is a mixed bag, with a bravura central performance and impressive production design, but an over-familiar story and flat dialogue.
Fresh from winning the best supporting actress BAFTA for her portrayal of Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby has a knack for playing the idle rich. Here she is the titular Julie, a messed up trustafarian, trying to get over a nasty break-up by celebrating her birthday with an assortment of loved-up strangers at her fathers townhouse abutting Hampstead Heath.
Kirbys performance is a faultless blend of arrogance and ennui, innocence and imperiousness, sadness and sensuality – a character worthy of both your sympathy and contempt – but she is hampered by a script that renders Julie a cliché. A couple of years ago, playing the similarly wealthy and world-wary Elena in Robert Ickes update of Uncle Vanya at the Almeida, Kirby was empowered to exhibit a far greater range and complexity.
Theres no dialogue in the first five minutes, which is a bold choice in a play that runs for less than 90 minutes. While a highly choreographed party takes place in the background, were introduced to the other main characters: Jean, Julies fathers Cape Verdean chauffeur, and his Brazilian fiancé Kristina, who works as the housekeeper. Jean has been tasked with preventing the party from getting out of hand, but when Julie demands that he join her for a dance, their flirtation rapidly escalates, with exactly the tragic consequences you might expect.
It isnt just that this play reinterprets an influential classic that makes it seem unoriginal. Playwright Polly Stenham – whose debut, That Face, famously appeared on the London stage when she was just 20-years-old – rather specialises in the idle rich too. While Strindbergs Miss Julie was an exploration of misogyny and Darwinian class struggle in the rigidly ordered society of 19th century Sweden, this adaptation shifts the action to the permissive world of present day London.
The stakes here are lower – nobodys reputation will be ruined by consensual sex – and although Stenham clearly intends to draw the audiences attention to the disparities between the metropolitan elite and the immigrant workforce, indignities are only listed in retrospect; we dont see them enacted, nor do we learn enough about Jean or Kristinas backgrounds for their stories to land any real emotional punches.
The Lyttleton is a big theatre – too big for this play – but this problem at least leads to an innovative use of space, and some flashy stage mechanics. Theres a truly shocking moment of Grand Guignol too, but in the end clever effects and a fine performance cannot overcome a lacklustre script.