Victory review – ‘Julia Pilkington’s direction places us on a knife edge’

Victory is a reminder of student theatre's capacity to thrill and chill in equal measure

Adam Diaper and Alex Rugman in Victory

“I love this fucking nation. But what is it?” asks Charles. It’s a good question. At first glance, the world of Julia Pilkington’s Victory’s is one of luscious costume. Mia Parnall creates a Reformation enmeshed in elaborate corsage, peering out behind frivolous frills. Abigail Allan’s marketing presents us a world with an emphatic connoisseur’s precision. We are seduced by the folds of a fabric, a blotch of rouge on the cheek. “This fucking nation” is beautifully composed.

So it’s surprising to find soiled sheets hanging from the ceiling, serving as ornately decorated banners. ‘HARMONIA BRITANNIA’ is printed in block capitals down the frayed edges. Instead of perfume and powder we find hay strewn on the floor. The view is accompanied by a striking soundtrack, produced by Nathan Geyer. I’m told it’s a harpsicord, “processed” and “manipulated”, the result being an erratic strumming of strings, applying a kind of pressure that we know must break. Before the play has even started this ‘HARMONIA’ is on the brink. It’s gonna get messy.

Britain is in a mess. It’s 1660 and Charles II is back on the throne. “This is a new world”, and the anti-monarchists are sweating. The tension is played out by the story of John Bradshaw’s widow – the High Court Judge who tried Charles I. Heads rolled. Now, Bradshaw’s torso hangs on the Strand. His head sits on a spike. But that’s history. His widow Susan vows to retrieve the mutilated parts. What follows is a “baroque ‘n’ roll…tragedy”, one and a half hours of grotesque and comical chaos.

Immediately we are inundated with obscenity. Dick jokes spring out of nowhere. We hear of smutty sex – “cunt leisure”. The King’s mistress cries at his coronation, “Charlie! You are hurting my arse!” The cast’s distorted and exaggerated delivery had the audience in stitches. There was something special about every actor: Stas Butler’s gawping face; Olivia White’s stony ‘I’m done with you’ face; Adam Diaper’s careering body; Alex Rugman’s pathetic contortions; Esme Sanders’ delightfully sickening grin. Rosa Garland’s eyes spoke volumes. I kept jotting down the same word for Livesey’s performance: ‘hilarious’, underlined. His comic timing meant he didn’t even have to speak to make us giggle. The only problem arose when these grotesqueries drowned out the words. There were moments when some characters omitted a funny-sounding gabble, making it hard to follow the plot. It is lucky, then, that Howard Barker’s play is unashamedly chaotic. The play is fragmented by total blackouts. We are meant to feel lost, but we’re swept up in the romp.

It is Bea Udale-Smith’s performance that provided a stunning psychological realism. There were moments when the artifice seemed to slip away, as if she was really feeling. Emotions flickered across her face. Her eyes glimmered. Being told her husband has been found dismembered and displayed we witnessed a complete mental and physical collapse. It was unbearable. It is Susan that articulates the play’s fundamental drama: what happens when man turns to “an animal, in times of animals.” To see Victory is to witness what fills harmony’s gaping absence – to indulge in diabolical disorder. The beautiful composure we expect visibly unravels. The white face paint begins to smear. Costumes tear. Dresses are dishevelled. Hands are bloodied.

The result is a constant shift between hilarity and brutality. Julia Pilkington’s direction places us on a knife edge. She masterfully turns the scene in a moment. A raucous wedding turns to torture when a dissident is presented on a kind of platter – his tongue cut out. Alex Rugman triumphed playing a man reduced to maimed animal. We winced with him. The same can be said for Adam Diaper’s portrayal of Charles. His ability to play both a tyrant and a clown is testament to the power of his acting. He a line he stops our laughter in our throats. Amidst the laughter we had an underlying sense of trauma – of blood in the air.

But it is not only this we sense. Victory is a powerful reminder that student productions can dazzle.

4 Stars