It’s well-known Black Comedy starts in complete darkness but in the double bill at the Minerva theatre in Chichester, so does August Strindberg‘s Miss Julie. A couple of seconds of pitch black until a match strikes and an oil lamp is lit. The Minerva stage has been transformed to an airy and welcoming kitchen of a 19th century mansion. Despite the oil lamp and other equipment, the set wears its period elements lightly. Squint a little and you could be in a modern – if rustic – house. Contemporary echoes run through the whole of the production, a lot of them due to the new adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. If that weakens the social focus of the story, it brings other pleasures.
The story is preoccupied with class and social mores: the action is set in the kitchen and we are always aware this is working class territory. It’s midsummer’s night, and the mistress of the house starts a cat and mouse sexual game with one of the senior servants. Before the night is out, the power dynamics have shifted several times and in different directions. The strict class structure of 19th century households has no equivalent in 21st century western societies (where social inequality manifests itself in other ways) and the production doesn’t duel on that. The tragedy becomes one of people trapped in their own preconceptions. We have the sense they could escape if they dared to do so. It’s a rich and immediately relatable perspective.
Rosalie Craig has Julie’s vivacity down to a tee. It’s easy to believe in her irrepressible energy, although I missed some of the character’s neuroses. Shaun Evans’ Jean is dashing and a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He is in turns tender, inconsiderate, crude and articulate. He is ambitious and acutely aware of class structure, to the point of suffocation. Still there are no signs of duplicity. Evans navigates contradictions with a winning – if deceptive – simplicity: you feel comfortable in his corner until you realise you need to pull away as he tells more lies to himself than he tells others. Emma Handy’s Kristin in clear-eyed and pragmatic, a thoroughly modern soul. She is also physically forward and doesn’t let Jean get away with mind games. You have to wonder whether Jean goes for Julie because he is no match for Kristin.
Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy was written to be performed alongside Miss Julie, which is to say there is no obvious connection between the two plays**. No matter. It’s brilliant to see life through joyful eyes twenty minutes after contemplating the darker aspects of human experience. The conceit of the play is well-known: the lighting conditions are reversed, a lit stage represents complete darkness in the context of the story and the other way around. For the first five minutes, the auditorium is pitch black while Brindsley Miller, a penniless sculptor, and his fiancée Carol kick off the action on stage. It’s the kind of darkness with no light from anywhere, after five minutes I still couldn’t see any better. It’s fun as it is disquieting. When there is a power cut in Brindsley’s flat and the auditorium is flooded with light, the nerves are already tingling with anticipation.
This is a big evening for Brindsley, waiting a visit from his fiancée’s father and from a wealthy investor interested in his art, so the power cut puts him at a spot of bother. For the next hour, unexpected visitors, deceptions hidden in plain sight, leaps of faith and athleticism, underhanded gestures and desperate decisions make things worse. Much worse.
Hand to heart, farce might be my favourite theatrical genre. Done well, it’s lyrical, cutting edge, fist-in-your-mouth exciting. At the centre of it, it has human desperation, and therefore the grit – and foolishness – of human spirit. All these qualities sparkle prominently in Jamie Glover’s production. Glover choreographs Brindlsey’s darkest hour with elegance, moral purpose and space for the small gestures: touching hands in the dark, no one recognises anyone – not even the lovers – except Harold (the gay neighbour) who knows Brindsley immediately, casually, almost dismissively.
Paul Ready is well versed in farce – he was in the brilliant revival of Noises Off a couple of years ago, and his hiding scene in Much Ado About Nothing was a masterclass in inventive simplicity – and this is his play. His Brindsley is as hapless as he is opportunistic. He is physically sharp and indefatigable and still leaves space for emotional truthfulness. It’s acting like tightrope walking and it’s beautiful.
The rest of the cast falls easily and beautifully around him: Rosalie Craig’s Clea is a breath of fresh air, all life and spirit. Jonathan Coy – another Noises Off veteran – plays the ramrod temperament of the military man with an eye for the absurd. Shaun Evans’ Harold is as camp as he is perceptive and his hurt carries real weight while still preserving a lightness of touch. Carol is the silly but beautiful girl of the story but Robyn Addison undercuts these qualities with determination, even ruthlessness. Marcia Warren is all twinkly naughtiness and Mike Grady steals his scenes with a crisp and sincere naivety.
Black Comedy is a gleeful hour of high stakes mischief, and the denouement to a very rewarding evening.
** Miss Furnival in Black Comedy misquotes “It is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle, than for a camel to enter heaven” while Kristin in Miss Julie uses the correct quote: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”.