Fiona Button in What a Carve Up!
On Theatre

Carving out a new genre

Digital theatre is now beginning to offer stalls-starved audiences the kind of quality work they would have queued to see live

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Lockdown theatre began by streaming old productions and moved into the realm of some instant pop-up ones which looked a bit like watching a podcast being recorded or a Zoom call with actors rehearsing their lines. After a few months of forgettable and plain excruciating ones we have arrived at the point where “digital theatre” is beginning to offer stalls-starved audiences the kind of quality work they would have queued to see live. 

By far the clear winner for ambition and a slightly crazy mesmerising quality is the new online production of What a Carve Up! (a collaboration between The Barn theatre in Cirencester, Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield and New Wolsey theatre in Ipswich). These three have joined forces to move into a genre nestling somewhere between theatre, TV and online video, but with verve and humour we might relish watching from our sofa.

Adapting Jonathan Coe’s sprawling political satire and adding an extra layer of DIY sleuthing to bring it up to date, What a Carve Up! is the brainchild of Henry Filloux-Bennett, a name to watch as an iconoclastic figure bridging the gap between stage, audio and online theatre. (He has also had an imaginative stab at adapting Nigel Slater’s autobiography Toast as part animation, part radio play.) 

But this is an altogether more ambitious undertaking, more remarkable for costing less than £20,000 to mount and deploying a mash-up of genres, ranging from mock YouTube and podcast, with much pastiche of crime-comedy genres and a riveting toe-to-toe Emily Maitlis-style television inquisition of the last surviving Winshaw, who turns out to be as adept a liar as her forebears. 

When Coe wrote What a Carve Up! in 1994 the Thatcher years were a recent memory and with them the dying embers of the 1980s and their impact on the stage in the permanent opposition of David Hare and Caryl Churchill. In the (admittedly limited) imagination of key left-wing writers, the entire era was about greed-is-good Big-Bang excess. 

But if you are going to have a partisan parody of politics and the social mores around them, it might as well be a confident one, with Coe ably juggling references to the 1960s (hence a fabulously silly and bloody revenge plot which echoes the eponymous 1961 Sid James and Kenneth Connor film) and postmodernist deconstruction.

One of the unintended consequences of morality tales is that they only get really interesting when the baddies appear

Now we revisit the Winshaws, a melange of the dastardly tribes somewhere between the Borgias and the Game of Thrones clans — venal, opportunistic, disloyal (not least to each other) and very rich as a result. 

They make the grippingly nasty TV drama Succession look like a modest bit of family intrigue. When not in bed with each other’s spouses, the Winshaws lie with the devil of the day, whether helping facilitate the rise of Hitler, doing business with Saddam Hussein on the eve of Gulf War One or unleashing the Suez crisis. 

As Coe writes, “In every manner of swindling, forgery, larceny, robbery, thievery, trickery, jiggery-pokery, hanky-panky, plundering, looting, sacking, misappropriation, spoliation and embezzlement,” they set the international gold standard. A gruesome end awaits, each dispatched in a way fitting his or her crimes — and if you are going to dispatch a media tycoon, crushing him under the weight of his own newspaper bundles is a fine way to go about it. In this reframing of the gruesome saga it’s been 30 years since the bizarre events that dispatched most of the family and we’re into second-generation narration techniques (very Wuthering Heights) as Raymond (Alfred Enoch), whose father was originally commissioned to write the family history of the Winshaws, embarks on his own quest to understand the night of the long knives which possibly framed his father — and left only one descendent of the Winshaws alive today. 

It’s hugely enjoyable if you like spotting allusions to earlier works of comeuppance or internal literary jokes, and Filloux-Bennett’s decision to have the action run backwards recalls An Inspector Calls with a similar air of mystery about whose story is being told and the shifting role of the sleuth. Many of the A-list cast, including Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Griff Rhys Jones and Sharon D. Clarke, appear only as voices (it’s a testament to how bored actors at this level are around for this kind of work). 

One of the unintended consequences of morality tales from Paradise Lost to contemporary debunkings of the powerful, however, is that they only get really interesting when the baddies appear, which means we end up rooting for the people we are supposed to decry. 

Here Josephine Winshaw (Fiona Button) is the glossy, far-right, head-tossing witch of a columnist, redefining her late father’s crude populist ethos for the 2000s. The contemporary villains are Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Dominic Cummings, which is not going to win many prizes for originality. 

While satire on the 1980s might be settled in its own heroes-and-villains groove, it feels less dated than barbs directed at Trump in the wake of a defeat which will, however agonisingly, carry him out of the White House or Cummings, who has just left Downing Street with a cardboard box. The trouble with such on-the-nose satire about a particular moment is that it feels redundant as the moment fades from prominence.

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