A summer short of a half-century cornerstone celebration, here again is Kenneth Tynan’s paring of two modern classic one-act plays which opened at Chichester Festival Theatre back in 1965. Peter Shaffer, the playwright at the heart of this year’s festival, wrote Black Comedy in accordance with Tynan’s wishes for a companion piece to August Strindberg’s Miss Julie for the National Theatre. In a new translation by the first living female to have had a play performed on the Olivier stage, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Strindberg’s battle of class and sexes is the first to be seen in this original coupling directed by Jamie Glover.
Faithfully set on midsummers eve, an annual dance for the servants of an estate takes place. The stage descends toward the audience in thrust. Andrew D Edwards handsomely decorates it with wooden furniture and fancy china. We hear music play in the distance and await the power-play. Miss Julie, the mistress of the estate, finds herself drawn to a senior servant, Jean, who admits his love, regardless of his class. Who’s really in charge?
A rare notable moment of Lenkiewicz’s disappointingly safe revision and Glover’s direction arrives when Rosalie Craig’s tomboyish Miss Julie, the upper on the class spectrum, is on her knees – yet the working nature of Shaun Evans’ Jean sees him lower himself to her. Would this be the case the other way around? The use of symmetry is also very pleasing to the eye. The set-up around the table, revealing only one side, brings with it much intrigue, yet this hardly compensates for the lack of spark between the two leads. To my dismay, the major issue is that of Evans’ over-articulated Northern vowel sounds. Phonetically speaking, dependent on region, vowel sounds can differ, but they wouldn’t flit from one to another.
The interval takes place and Black Comedy sets to the stage. In complete darkness the action commences and the actors move around the black abyss of a space. Not until James Whiteside’s meticulous cues of Shaffer’s reverse lighting scheme gets turned on do we see the characters. When the lights are on in their world, they are off in ours and vice versa – you get the idea.
The play is a farce, toying on similar issues of money and lust, though the action migrates from a country estate in nineteenth century Sweden to a 60s South Kensington apartment in which a fuse has blown. Brindsley Miller (a hilarious Paul Ready), is a piss-poor artist who has 'borrowed' the furniture of his currently out-of-town neighbour, Harold (Evans gives a more convincing performance here, camp and toffee-nosed). This is all because a deaf, rich art merchant is coming to see Miller’s works. Standing in a pitch black living room with his fiancée, Carol (Robyn Addison captures the deliriousness of a swinging Sixties girl) and his elderly neighbour (Marcia Warren, whose stumbles for a stiff drink bring the house down), Miller is about to meet his sweetheart's militaristic father. He receives a call from his ex, Clea (a tongue-in-cheek portrayal by Rosalie Craig), and a whole string of events begin to unfold.
This production is side-splittingly funny, fast paced and full of joyous action. The entire company is hilarious and they support each other wonderfully. Particular credit is due when they can be brave enough to acknowledge muck ups, which bring with them an aura of spontaneity that is both endearing and engaging to watch.