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Miss Julie review at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick – ‘intense and visceral’

Jean Sheldon and Charlotte Hamblin in Miss Julie at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick. Photo: Keith Pattison Jean Sheldon and Charlotte Hamblin in Miss Julie at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick. Photo: Keith Pattison

What servants really think of their masters is a dramatic theme that goes right back to classical Roman comedy. Howard Brenton’s new version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie is more Jacobean in flavour, drawing out not just the opinions but the lusts and wills-to-power usually kept under wraps in the stratified society of the Big House.

Tom Littler’s production opens with that most domestic of tasks, cooking, and is full of the jobs which need to be done. But by the time the sun is up, the neat kitchen table that dominates Louie Whitemore’s traverse set will have seen its fair share of bodies, and booze – and the kitchen knife will need to be wiped clean of blood.

Littler’s direction keeps the focus tight for this intense, and at times visceral, drama, whilst allowing his leads some flirtatious lightness.

At the show’s heart are two contrastingly impressive performances. Charlotte Hamblin’s Miss Julie is initially in control, amusing herself by ramping up the sexual tension with James Sheldon’s servant Jean. But once the deed is done it’s a different story. Hamblin is compelling in full-on wild-child mode, though her scorched-earth victimhood at the play’s end misses some opportunities for nuance.

James Sheldon’s antagonist/lover is what the Jacobeans would have called a malcontent; observant, intelligent, passionate, soured by service, and especially service to a woman. Sheldon’s performance simmers with resentment and desire.

Izabella Urbanowicz as his betrayed fiancee offers a quieter, reined-in dignity, a reminder of how the respectable world works to contextualise this night of passions.

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Intense, visceral and powerfully performed production of Strindberg