Theatre Review - Miss Julie, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Maxine Peake and Joe Armstrong in Miss Julie at Manchester Royal Exchange
Maxine Peake and Joe Armstrong in Miss Julie at Manchester Royal Exchange

Attitudes to women – and by women – may have altered considerably in the 124 years since this play was written, but its central dilemma remains pretty much the same.

Miss Julie is a woman who does not know her place. “Not a proper lady,” as one character suggests. Spurned by a fiancée we never meet, and torn between her parents’ conflicting ideals, she drunkenly lets down her hair, and her defences, on the night of a midsummer party.

In the kitchens of her manorial home she seduces, or is seduced by, Jean the family valet. Like much else here, you decide.

Conversations tail off, motivation is not always apparent, and the audience can draw their own conclusions in a play that always leaves you talking long after its 100 minutes are up.

The control shifts delicately between the two central characters, in a slow-burning powerplay of sex, lust and class.

David Eldridge’s new version of August Strindberg’s classic drama fully exploits the cracks in the social fabric from the original. Jean (Joe Armstrong) is a plebeian who knows his wine while Julie (Maxine Peake) is the elegant patrician who knows what she wants.

Eldridge, and director Sarah Frankcom, have also played to the obvious strengths of their cast. Armstrong is a convincing, conniving chancer with one eye on the next opportunity, even when he’s eating. Peake may be well known to TV audiences but you can only ever really appreciate her talent in this setting as she takes Julie on her rapid journey from sexual predator towards a quivering madness.

Carla Henry, as Jean’s erstwhile fiancée Kristin, makes a persuasive counterpoint to the couple destroyed by desire and two Preston theatre students, Cara Lee and Jordana Wilson, help put UCLAN on the map as part of the production’s ensemble of supporting roles.

Miss Julie continues until May 12.