For those familiar with the actual Julie Birchill, literary wunderkind and hedonistic hellraiser, the content of Tim Fountain and Mike Bradwell’s play will contain few surprises and many delights. For those unfamiliar, the changing screen featuring photos of Nigella Lawson next to Lenin and an Israeli flag draped over a leopard-print sofa serve as ample indicators of the eccentric, raucous, often controversial and always unapologetic character who is to occupy the stage for the following hour.
Undoubtedly the highlight of this play is the towering performance given by Lizzie Roper.
The play begins with an answering machine message from Julie’s exasperated accountant which ends just before the lady herself bursts through the door laden with the spoils of her holiday. From then we are regaled with anecdotes, observations and general gatling-gun babble from Julie whilst she prepares for a lunch despite near-constant interruptions from her accountant, a retailer looking to buy her house and a casting agent for Celebrity Big Brother. Throughout all of this Julie is liberally swigging vodka and taking, in a variety of ways, really quite a lot of cocaine.
Local references go down well with the audience, as do many of Julie’s frankly outrageous comments on everything from transgenderism to religion, via Nandos. Venomous comments about fellow journalists are equally hilarious for those familiar with the victims. The crassness of her manner and sheer unacceptability of the majority of Julie’s opinions in our uber-PC society force the play to walk the line between humour and offensiveness, but the combination of script and delivery ensure that the audience is allowed to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of Julie, rather than laugh along with her.
Undoubtedly the highlight of this play is the towering performance given by Lizzie Roper. To not only be the only actor onstage for an entire hour but also to do so in the guise of such a potentially unlikeable character is no mean feat. I doubt that there was one person in my showing who did not find themselves utterly seduced by the magnetism that Roper had lent Julie. In the few minutes where we are allowed to see through her titanium shell of self-assurance, we are able to feel a kind of empathy with this wild, witty woman.
Is Julie a comic character? Yes, Is she a tragic character? Absolutely, but despite all of her failings, she is, in some ways, inspirational. Catapulted into a rich, middle-class world where she might as well have been an alien from a very young age, she has remained totally, rigidly herself where many would have softened into banality: that is impressive.