Review: Julie, National Theatre

RATING: ★★★★

The best thing about Julie is, without a doubt, Vanessa Kirby's outstanding performance in the title role. While this new adaption isn't without its flaws and the modern setting doesn't always work, the performances and the design of the show are stunning.

Julie is an adaption by Polly Streham of Strindberg's classic Miss Julie, which is set in 1880s Sweden. This new production finds us in modern day Hampstead Heath where Julie, a rich young woman who has recently been broken up with, is throwing a birthday party. However, she finds herself in the kitchen with her father's chauffeur Jean and tension builds.

The play addresses race, gender, and privilege though Streham's modernisation at times feels clumsy as it attempts to update the show's statements about class. The discussions around gender sometimes feel underdeveloped and those around race come off too often as forced.

Despite these issues with the play text, under Carrie Cracknell's direction, the actors manage to make it into something electrifying. From the way that the party feels seductively cool to the play's shocking and emotional ending, it would be hard not to be enthralled. I was seated in Row C and being so close to the action made it even harder to look away. In the play's ninety minutes, not once did my mind wander.

We know and love Vanessa Kirby as party-girl Princess Margaret on The Crown, but her Julie (while seemingly similar) is a lot more complex. If she has any fault in her portrayal, it's that she is overwhelmingly likable and pitiable the entire way through, which makes it all too easy for the audience to turn on Jean. She builds a character who clearly has some serious issues lurking close beneath the rich socialite exterior, making the way the play unfolds ever more believable.

I don't want to give anything away, but for those who have seen it: I will not be able to forget the scene with the bird anytime soon.

Eric Kofi Abrefa is a worthy match for Julie as Jean, her father's chauffeur who has held a tendre for her for several years. He flickers between easy confidence, earnestness, and rage throughout the show. However, without the class conflict better defined, he can come off as unfeeling and a bit of a jerk.

Thalissa Teixeira is wonderful as Kristina, a Brazilian woman who works in Julie's home and cheerfully picks up after the party. Her warmth and obvious care for her fiancé Jean and for Julie herself endear her to the audience and her heartbreak later in the show went straight to my heart.

The ensemble aren't often utilized but deftly build a party atmosphere of rich young people with nothing better to do than drink and do drugs. Their movement, choreographed by Ann Yee, is strangely entrancing even in its odder moments.

I really enjoyed Tom Scutt's design of the piece. The two layer set serves the show well and the modern sleek kitchen sets the tone for Julie's upper class life instantaneously. (His party design also made me realize I'm definitely not going to the right parties.) I also enjoyed the costuming, particularly Julie's sparkly jacket which gave her the vibe of someone only playing at being a grown up.

While the play's modernisation certainly leaves something to be desired, the performances and the design of Julie make it well worth seeing. It forces its audiences to consider both privilege and the way that the events of our youth shape our entire personalities. The production is on in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National to 8 September.

Photo Credit: Richard H Smith 
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