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Miss Julie (Manchester)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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"Love is a game we play when we get time off from work" - one of many delicious lines in Sarah Frankcom's excellent production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie

As this is a Strindberg piece, you might be expecting a long, depressing piece of theatre. Due to the beautifully slow burning pace, a trio of excellent performances and David Eldridge's new modern touches (from a literal translation from Charlotte Barslund) - this Miss Julie is far from maudlin.

What begins as an exploration of the classes and what happens when a servant begins having an affair with the lady of the house - soon becomes something far less cliched than you would imagine. This is partly due to the central performance by Maxine Peake as she plays the title character with conviction and imbues her with a sturdy, predatory and knowing quality in the first half and becomes more submissive, as the play goes on.

Likewise, Joe Armstrong's Jean is loyal man-servant one minute and controlling alpha-male the next - "You look dug up", he says to his broken mistress. These two are gripping to watch, as they totally embrace Strindberg's narrative twists and turns, whereby characters are hard to read and even harder to resist - even at the height of their game playing. 

Carla Henry's Kristin is not quite as naive as she first appears, yet the actress gives her so many endearing qualities that you long for her to triumph. This is not really a showy role but Henry makes sure that, as the third part of the triangle - that she is never forgotten and she has a great knack for comedy.

Frankcom has created a handsome and rich production of a classic text and she takes many risks. Some pay off - but others seem misjudged. Having a song sung outside during a war of words is distracting and a musical number is amusing and gets across the point that there is a parallel affair taking place - amongst the working classes, but it still appears a tad clumsy.

I admire the fact that as a director - Sarah does not try to inject pace into the proceedings, as it means a bigger emotional pay-off for the audience. Max Jones' gorgeous set design enchances this claustrophobic atmosphere and if you are an animal lover, one particular set piece is ingenious and incredibly authentic. 

As a result, Miss Julie is a challenging and thought-provoking piece of theatre which is unpredictable, edgy, yet darkly amusing and poignant in equal measure.


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