Miss Julie Black Comedy (Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until August 9th)

Modern theatre can sometimes be very difficult to understand, but we seasoned and professional reviewers have to sit through anything – and often write about productions that float way above our heads.

At the Minerva Theatre in Chichester this summer one of the productions – Miss Julie Black Comedy – definitely falls into the category of being odd and I admit to leaving very puzzled indeed. I thought about it so hard on the train home that I nearly missed my station, and then I’d have had to get a taxi or something.

Written by August Strindberg and Peter Shaffer the play is in two distinct parts and the audience has to stay very alert indeed so as not to be confused. The first act is set in the early 20th Century and shows the developing relationship between a well-to-do woman and a servant on a country estate. The second act is set several years later, in a London flat in the Swinging Sixties, so I think it must be an allegory about the Harold Wilson Labour Government or the War.

Playing Miss Julie Black is Rosalie Craig (who I saw in The Light Princess at the National Theatre, where she was excellent, although I’d actually gone to see Emil and the Detectives and went into the wrong theatre because it’s quite confusing there). When we first see her she is quite aristocratic and in the second act she seems more down to earth, showing how the reality of war is a great leveller.

Playing opposite her is Shaun Evans (probably best known for playing Endeavour on TV – that’s Inspector Morse before he changed his name. He’s really good in it but I always liked John Thaw, so I have a cut-out photo of John next to my TV and hold it up whenever Shaun Evans is on screen so it looks as though John Thaw is in it.). At first he is an intellectual valet, but the passing of time turns him into a collector of antiques, representing the passing of time.

There’s a very strong performance from Paul Ready as Brindsley, who only appears in the second act, which is a shame as he would be very good in the first. He is probably best known for appearing in Utopia on TV as the man in the yellow suit, but he doesn’t wear the yellow suit in this production so is almost unrecognisable, which just goes to show what a professional he is.

There was obviously something wrong with the lights, as the set was in darkness for quite a few minutes at the start of the second act but the cast struggled on gamefully, which goes to show how professional they all are. I must be a jinx as it reminded me of one of the most exciting times I have ever had in the theatre, when the lights went out in Black Coffee by Agatha Christie at Eastbourne and starring Robert Powell (best known for playing Jesus on TV). On that occasion the cast were unable to carry on and Robert Powell came on in character as Poirot to tell us to sod off home, but at Chichester the cast did carry on until the lights came back on. Unfortunately they kept going off, which got rather annoying but life is filled with these adventures.

It’s a good job the play’s title tells us it is a comedy as the first act wasn’t that funny at all and it looked for all the world as though Miss Julie Black was going to commit suicide at the end of it, but she survived and went off to become a spy for many years before moving to London. This was made obvious because two German characters appeared in the second half, obviously representing the Nazis.

Clever, no doubt – but if you prefer things easier to get into you might be better to go and see something in Eastbourne maybe with the Rattatonians, as they don’t perform unfunny and confusing comedies.

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