Kitchens. I’ve seen a few good ones at the National – thinking back a (good) bit to Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business and more recently Nine Night in the Dorfman. But this kitchen, in Julie, is the biggest kitchen that you or I are ever likely to come across anytime, anywhere, anyhow. It’s massive. I suppose the thinking is: the Lyttelton stage is very wide and if we’re going to do this one-location (ish) show on it we will have to fill it so therefore we need, Tom Scutt, designer, a 30 foot wide (or long?) kitchen, complete with twenty-something floor level cupboards (that’s not counting what might be on the fourth wall). And multiple dishwashers. And, of course, an elongated table in this Hampstead family home with old-style workhouse benches which could easily seat a cast of twenty or so urchins in Oliver! And, lest we forget, the kitchen needs to be sunken so that there are steps down to it at each end from the height of the floor cabinets so that the tops can be easily accessed for people to sashay, crawl, stagger and dance along without those pesky wall-cabinet hindrances you get in normal kitchens.
The galley-monstrosity is decked out in fetchingly dull gunmetal grey which would drive anybody nuts after a couple of days so it’s quite easy to understand that Julie, who has been born into, brought up in, lived in and
frequently got high in this peak Poggenpohl nightmare is on the edge of being slightly deranged.
For me, this is a classic case of a set design getting in the way of the production. Julie is an adaptation, an updating, of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie, one location (a real kitchen), naturalistic play, placing real people in an authentic setting. Polly Stenham in her re-working, whilst pursuing the naturalistic intent of the original playwright, finds her play in a completely unrealistic setting which destroys the point of the naturalism and detracts from the angst-ridden relationships that develop. If the set was destroyed overnight (happened to me once) but the show had to go on with nothing but lighting and a regular kitchen table, nothing, in my opinion, would be lost. That is because the dialogue and characterisation are spot on and the cast who create the uneasy quasi-ménage-à-trois are superb.
As Julie, Vanessa Kirby teeters on the edge of self-harm both physical and psychological and gives us the full range of expressive trepidation creating a heady mix of malaise and mental self-flagellation. She’s on the edge, driven there by the all-consuming desire for affection, for tenderness for an acknowledgement of the fragile self-esteem that neither friends, family, drink or drugs have ever been able to help her discover. Kirby gives us all this in her emotional-extremis performance that screams: I’m out of control, I’m falling like in my nightmares, I am not able to hold it together. Kirby brilliantly shares this tortured soul as she sets about destroying the relationship of those who are closest to her. It’s a consummate performance that draws us in totally, and it doesn’t need a grandiose kitchen to do it.
Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean is a calm, rational, quietly intellectual two-timer who lets it slip when he lets slip it’s basically all about the money. Abrefa gives a cultured performance holding on to his emotions long enough to convince us he’s one of the good guys until he shows us that actually, he’s not. He’s a kind of quiet fantasist who’s got it all planned out except the plans themselves. Lovely performance by Abrefa, delicately unprincipled.
And as the spurned cook and bottle-washer Kristina, Thalissa Teixeira brings a subtle, knowing adult air to the third component of the ultimately dysfunctional threesome. Hers is the most difficult task as while the others
are on the inside looking out Kristina finds herself on the outside looking in. There’s a soothing kind of calm assurance by Teixeira, a bulwark against the explosive relationship pyrotechnics that are happening around her.
The wonderful reveal of the club scene, complete with excess-all-areas flash-mob and Christopher Shutt’s emphatic sound design and Guy Hoare’s excellent lighting, is created by the rising shutter that is the kitchen’s back wall (thus explaining why there are no wall cabinets); and this doubles, later, as Julie’s bedroom which we are allowed to peer into voyeur-like, with Kristina, as Julie and Jean get it on. That shutter can close quickly as it does on the club scene but once Julie and Jean have returned to the kitchen it remains open, until, eventually, it begins to close imperceptibly. It is imperceptible, of course, until you perceive it, at which point it takes on the fascination of a cobra. And this happens as the relationship angst is starting to boil over. It’s a total and completely unnecessary distraction. Are the actors working well at this point? They’re brilliant. So why do anything to detract from them?
And a final point. Do we really need to see a (theatrically) live canary put into a blender which is switched on resulting in a blood-red canary smoothie? I think not. Once past the initial shock and audience-ugh! reaction people just laughed. Another distraction.
My thoughts then for Director Carrie Cracknell are these: trust your actors; and the writing. They’re both brilliant. Let them do the talking rather than crowd-pleasing, stagey tricks. After all, Strindberg’s philosophy was that the play should be naturalistic – not flamboyant nor theatrical.
Review by Peter Yates
by Polly Stenham
Running Time: 1 hour 30 mins, no interval
Wild and newly single, Julie throws a late night party. In the kitchen, Jean and Kristina clean up as the celebration heaves above them.
Crossing the threshold, Julie initiates a power game with Jean. It descends into a savage fight for survival.
Temitope Ajose-Cutting, El Anthony, Thomasin Gulgec, Vanessa Kirby, Francesca Knight, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Dak Mashava, Michela Meazza, Ana Beatriz Meireles, Ashley Morgan-Davies, Rebecca Omogbehin, Yuyu Rau, Petra Söör and Thalissa Teixeira.
Director – Carrie Cracknell
Designer – Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer – Guy Hoare
Movement Director – Ann Yee
Music – Stuart Earl
Sound Designer – Christopher Shutt
Video Designer – Mogzi Bromley-Morgans
Fight Director – Owain Gwynn
Illusions – Chris Fisher
Company Voice Work – Jeannette Nelson
Staff Director – Jo Tyabji
Note: Julie will be screened to cinemas as part of National Theatre Live on 6th September 2018.