In The Lamplight’s Lady Julia brings August Strindberg’s seminal Miss Julie bang up to date, throwing together high-born Julia (Annabel Topham) and her father’s valet John (James Kenward) on New Year’s Eve 2008. It’s possible the company are hoping to replicate the success of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which updated the unlikely lovers and their tragic liaison from the 1874 of Strindberg’s play to 1945, but Lady Julia takes poorly to its new 21st century context.
The daughter of a Duke (or an Earl; James and Ben Kenward’s modern vernacular translation contradicts itself on this point) having a one night stand with the hired help just isn’t the life or death matter it would have been in 1874, or even 1945. John and Julia seem more concerned with the jeers of the other household staff (who hilariously sing Ali G and Shaggy's 'Me Julie' from offstage) than the media or the Duke’s reaction. Modern culture is tolerant enough of sexual indiscretion that the stakes for Julia and John never seem high enough to justify her second act histrionics. They’re certainly too low to justify suicide.
Finicky contextual details like this would be easier to overlook if the whole production were as engaging as the first act. From her first entrance, Topham asserts herself as a flighty but nonetheless confident and commanding celeb-aristo, forever drumming her fingers to dissipate nervous energy, in contrast to Kenward’s stoic John. But once the deed is done and contemporary attitudes to sex and reputation actually become relevant to their predicament, the incongruities become harder to ignore.
The downward slide begins with an incongruous physical theatre sequence, the only dramatic purpose of which seems to be to suggest the passage of time (which could be achieved with a blackout) and how John and Julia are spending it (which becomes apparent soon enough anyway). A scattershot and repetitive second act follows, in which director Gabriella Santinelli makes use of Topham’s impressive emotional range by having her change mood instantaneously every three or four lines. Each moment is believable in itself, but when strung together the impression they give is that Julia is bipolar, rather than simply tired, drunk and naturally skittish.
Amy Rhodes provides welcome relief as Christine the cook, delivering a comparatively understated and consistent performance, and refreshingly calling John out on all the bullshit Julia willingly swallows. For Strindberg, the character represented everything he despised: a peasant without aspirations to higher things. In this production, her unambitious pragmatism actually seems an attractive alternative to the others’ flights of fancy.