Only kidding. Patrick Marber’s popular adaptation of Stringberg opens in the home of a Labour peer, as family and servants join to celebrate the party’s landslide election victory of 1945. Not so much Upstairs Downstairs, then, but somewhere messy in between, as suggested by Patrick Burnier’s clever set, which centres round the staircase itself.
"Don’t confuse my appetites", says long-serving John (Kieran Bew) as his almost-betrothed Christine (Polly Frame) tries to feed him and kiss him at once. But when Miss Julie (Natalie Dormer) trips into their kitchen, a high-heeled question mark to Christine’s buttoned-up full-stop, his appetites stand no chance.
What follows is one long power game, with sex and class the weapons and no one person holding the ball for long. Are Julie’s advances passionate or patronising? Is John moved by love or envy? Only Christine knows her place, much good that it does her.
Frame’s performance is wonderfully contained, Bew is believable as a man haunted by his past and future, and Dormer attacks her character’s schizophrenia with gusto. However, moments between John and Julie that should be seriously unsettling often come across as histrionic, leaving their final psychosexual showdown feeling incongruous.
Marber must take some of the blame. "I’m a bad girl". Really? But there are missteps in Natalie Abrahami's direction here, too. Of all the questions asked, "Did they really behead a budgerigar?" should not be the one that sticks.