Carnival Theatre’s production of Victory, with breath-taking energy, blends comedy and tragedy in a captivating mixture of farce and horror. Despite its 1660 setting, its themes feel urgently modern: how can we deal with a divided country? In the face of national tragedy, is it better to rebel or submit? This is an extremely funny play that nevertheless manages to pose a searing interrogation of grief, class, gender, politics, and mortality – a pretty impressive feat.
The production values are strong, even in the small space of the Michael Pilch studio. The dissonant harpsichord music, the straw strewn across the floor, and the banners contrasting utopia with sordid reality, all evoke a broken country, desperately trying to pull its fragments together into something meaningful. The costumes are also superb: lush but gaudy, they perfectly suit a court where poetry coexists with hooliganism and Carry On style innuendo. This is an opulent but ugly world.
The production’s key strength, however, is its fantastic cast. All eight were equally inventive, frenetic, and incredibly funny – the raw comic talent of this production is staggering. Adam Diaper was particularly good as Charles II, a delightfully ludicrous buffoon that Diaper nevertheless gave real complexity. John Livesey, likewise, slyly stole every scene he was in, his cod Scottish accent in particular leaving the audience in hysterics. Ultimately, though, this is Bea Udale-Smith’s play as Bradshaw, the protagonist and emotional core of the play. Her disarming quietness barely conceals fury, which occasionally erupts in startling grief-fuelled tirades. Udale-Smith perfectly captures this knife-edge between restraint and abandon: I was really moved by her haunting expression of silent horror, in the play’s second act, upon seeing her son again.
Howard Barker’s language is brutally poetic, often gleefully coarse, something the cast relish. The constant vulgarity can get a bit tiresome, feeling like shock value for its own sake, but it is certainly integral to the play. After the brutality of war, politeness seems offensively shallow, and the characters feel almost obligated to match the horror they feel with ugly, barbaric speech. ‘I wish I could be more offensive’, a furious Ball spits as the play opens – it’s the only way to cope.
There’s a fine balance needed in Victory between farce and pathos, conveying meaninglessness and emotional meaning at the same time. This is mostly successful, though it falters at points during the middle, notably a scene about England’s banks that lapses into caricature. Likewise, though well acted, I’m not sure about Bradshaw’s companion Scrope – his clown-like antics jarred uncomfortably with his guilt and sadness. Happily, the pace and pathos pick up towards the end.
Overall, Carnival Theatre has staged a wildly entertaining, captivating play that showcases some stellar performances. Behind the madcap comic energy lies a tragic, desperate search for meaning. ‘There must be some truth, mustn’t there?’, Charles weakly asks Bradshaw as he examines the gratuity of his court and crown, but we are left very uncertain as to the answer. Victory is a rare comedy with bite – a bout of raucous laughter that barely conceals a sob.