Black Comedy & After Miss Julie
Peter Shaffer & Patrick Marber
Sat 17th October to Sat 24th October
In one hilarious act, the action supposedly in the dark is illuminated; but when the lights are supposed to be on, the stage is actually in the dark. Lovesick and desperate, sculptor Brindsley Miller has embellished his apartment with furniture and objets d'art "borrowed" from the absent antique collector next door hoping to impress his fiancee's pompous father and a wealthy art dealer, Bamberger. The fussy neighbour, Harold Gorringe returns just as a blown fuse plunges the apartment into darkness and Brindsley is revealed teetering on the verge of very ripe farce. Unexpected guests, aging spinsters, errant phone cords and other snares impede his frantic attempts to return the purloined items before light is restored.
AFTER MISS JULIE
Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie is not a translation of Strindberg's classic Miss Julie but a version of it, moving the action from the original 19th century Sweden to the England of 1945. Class suspicions and resentments, the erotic collusion of antagonists, the struggle against repressive social mores - all feature in this sharp, tense drama which combines Strindberg's original vision with Patrick Marber's own consummate skill in drawing believable and psychologically astute characters whose every word has point and deadly meaning.
After the final performance of Black Comedy, Pete Gillam may well feel the need for a long lie down - in a bath of ice, perhaps. To say that he throws himself into the role of avant garde sculptor Brindsley Miller in Peter Shaffer's 50-year-old farce is putting it mildly. After a power cut at his apartment, which leaves the cast but not the audience in the dark, he hurtles, lurches, stumbles and gropes his way around the stage in what might be called a tour de farce. The bruise count must be mounting nightly.
But if Brindsley fails in his ultimate mission to impress two visitors, his debutante fiancee's ex-colonel father and a millionaire art dealer, Pete and the rest of the cast succeed in reducing much of the audience to mild hysteria.
As ever with farce, it is the timing that counts. And on Monday evening at least, it was bang on the button. To achieve such a level of co-ordination and understanding among a cast portraying exactly the opposite as they play characters feeling their way around in pitch blackness takes considerable practice. It's easy to believe director John Ruscoe's admission that there were 'some exciting, hilarious challenging times during rehearsals'.
Apart from anything else, the sheer effort of remembering all those lines must have been particularly challenging for Cathryn Bowler and Lucy Hayton, bearing in mind that they have both tackled very different roles in the first half of the evening.
Lucy plays not only Brindsley's posh girlfriend but also the eponymous lead in After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber's adaptation of August Strindgberg's characteristically dark and brooding work of 1880s naturalism. Cathryn plays Christine, the seemingly downtrodden 'downstairs' skivvy in the first play. But in Shaffer's farce she gives a splendid portrayal of drunken vitriol as Miss Furnival, a spinsterish and initially teetotal clergyman's daughter who develops a taste for Vat 69 having mistaken it for bitter lemon in the darkness.
These two plays have been coupled together since the Chichester festival of 1965. On the face of it they have little in common. Except perhaps that they both feature that very English theme of social class. Yes, one was initially written by a Swede but Marber has updated the setting to 1945 and the ongoing celebrations following a Labour landslide. Indeed it begins with the Home Service announcing the result of the general election, newsreader Alvar Lidell's voice conveyed by Keith Railton, possibly wearing a dinner jacket.
Miss Julie turns out to be the daughter of a Labour peer whom, she reveals, holds the working class in contempt. So does she, although she doesn't mind slumming it a bit, flirting with John, her father's chauffeur, one minute and barking orders at him the next. To say that she is neurotic is an understatement. Bonkers more like. And Lucy Hayton successfully captures that tautness verging on madness that seems to increase in intensity after she has finally lost her virginity. As for John, he is played by Chris Firth a mixture of brooding resentment coupled with ambition that is ultimately snuffed out by his seemingly inbuilt conditioning to serve his master and, indeed, mistress.
Although the play is often tense and occasionally shocking, it's difficult to draw much of a moral from it. Except perhaps that the future ultimately belongs to those who, like the seemingly downtrodden Christine, seize an opportunity to look after themselves.