Miss Julie

LEO PARKER-REES is seduced by a mad little mistress of a play.

celine lowenthal Corpus Playroom Genevieve Gaunt George Johnston Holly Gupta Megan Roberts miss julie set strindberg

Corpus Playroom, 22nd-26th November, 7pm, £5-6

Directed by Celine Lowenthal

[rating: 4/5]

Before anything else, congratulations should go out to Holly Gupta, the show’s set designer. This isn’t a role I’d usually mention, but I’ve never seen the Corpus Playroom look so good.

A cupboard strewn with garlic cloves (it’s in France, you see) and pans, a chest of drawers, a sofa, table, a carefully crafted brown set of flats, complete with a fake door, servants’ bell and more pans… It was supposed to be a kitchen. It looked like a kitchen. Cramming so much in (with the extra challenge of fitting the full set of flats in) would normally make things seem cluttered, and it did. But that was exactly what a production like  Miss Julie  demanded, and it worked beautifully.

The play centres around the relationship between the titular Miss Julie (Genevieve Gaunt), a Count’s daughter, and Jean (George Johnston), his footman. On Midsummer’s Eve, Miss Julie’s repeated demands for a dance make him uncomfortable, but her status and their attraction make naughtiness inevitable. His fiancée, Christine (Megan Roberts), knows her place too well to refuse the lady’s demands, and once she goes to bed the revelations start spilling out, tongues loosened by beer and Burgundy from the Count’s cellars.

Credit must be given to the Megan Roberts and George Johnston as actors who have to shoulder the burden of opening such an intense piece of theatre. While the beginning was by no means weak, things only went uphill as the evening progressed. What seemed to be an awkward lack of chemistry between the two at the performance’s opening soon revealed itself to be acute direction rather than poor acting. Roberts eradicated any doubt of her abilities in the final scenes, where she managed a complete change of tone without losing anything in continuity of character.

Things really came alive, however, when Miss Julie herself made her entrance. Genevieve Gaunt’s performance was captivating. Sultry, powerful, rich and bored – the only phrase which feels appropriate is “just right”. Her charm worked on the audience just a much as it did on Jean.

Miss Julie’s schizophrenic franticness seemed in need of a clearer arc, and by the end felt just a little one-note. But these are small glitches in an otherwise great contribution. Her recounting of her family history, in particular, was utterly mesmerising; easily one of the best monologues I’ve seen in Cambridge.

Johnston’s performance was solid, but at times did waver. His role was perhaps the most challenging, demanding great subtlety and suppressed emotion. The were moments in storytelling speeches where the actor got carried away perhaps more than his character should have.

That being said, however, he found good balance in a difficult role, and brought out Jean’s ambition and hypocrisy well. It must be also be said, however, that the early stages of the play demanded a clearer difference in status between him and Miss Julie. Gaunt conveyed authority and snobbery well, but Johnston was at times a little too forceful in his replies to her improper demands. This was especially unfortunate, as later developments in the play could have been far more powerful with stronger power dynamics at the start.

Though certain shifts came across as inconsistencies rather than believable mood swings, this is a result of ambition rather than lack of ability. Lowenthal’s choice of script must be applauded: with its sudden swings from love to hate, subservience to authority, Miss Julie demands a level of precision and delicacy very few student actors and directors would brave. With a little polishing, this could be 5-star show, and I fully expect them to get there by the end of the run.