In a new adaptation, ‘What a Carve Up!’, Jonathan Coe’s polemic on the power of greed and corruption in the age of Thatcherism, has been re-imagined as a modern day parable delivered in the style of a true-crime investigation. Playwright Henry Filloux-Bennett has produced a fascinating interpretation of the 1994 novel, taking the spirit of the original text and bringing it bang up to date in a thoroughly gripping yarn.
The Winshaw family own us all. Corrupt and toxic, theirs is a sprawling family tree which is twisted and rotten to the core. They already have a family finger in every conceivable pie, yet we feel powerless to stop their onslaught. Somebody manages to though, as we know from the outset that the story did not end well for them, culminating in a macabre bloodbath in their remote country house in 1991.
Only one descendant of the family survives today, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button), a very modern villain who proudly wears each of her dead relatives appalling character traits like medals on her chest.
There is one suspect for the gruesome crime, Michael Owen, a writer who was commissioned to compose a history of the family and subsequently disappeared. But his son, Raymond (Alfred Enoch) believes his father is innocent and presents his own investigation to us here, 30 years on.
‘What a Carve Up!’ presents us with sweeping social history, taking in the Second World War and the eighties economic boom and bust. But we are looking backwards from the present at it, through modern eyes and sensibilities. The action starts at the end, in the here and now with our own political and social challenges. We are Raymond’s research assistants, sweeping through the archives too in a virtual fingertip search, piecing together the puzzle presented to us.
The star-studded cast, who appear both in person and in voiceover, lend the production a polished edge. The layering of multiple narratives enables the cast to perform separately, with Tamara Harvey’s clever direction resulting in a unique and stylish production. The staging utilises a patchwork of screen techniques; to-camera delivery, studio interview, found footage, news reports, audio recordings, phone calls, old photographs. It produces a dizzying effect.
Enoch’s performance as our narrator Raymond Owen is particularly compelling, helping us to navigate the intricacies of the web of intrigue, sleaze and social upheaval caused by one dynasty. His eyes gaze directly into the camera and out at us, creating a feeling that we, the audience, bear the responsibility of helping Owen solve the mystery of what happened.
The online production is a creative collaboration between three regional theatres: The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. This is not a streamed version of a stage production, this is an original project, developed during the COVID-19 pandemic and purposely staged for an online audience. It is a bold, vibrant interpretation of the original text, utilising an exciting new approach to telling stories and reaching audiences.
This reimagining of ‘What a Carve Up!’ is a timely reminder that not much has changed in the last 30 years. Corruption and scandal still ooze from the social and political fabric of the country like a lanced boil. It is a statement on our society, and the dangerous legacy created when power remains in the lap of a handful of influential people.
What a Carve Up! runs online until 29 November.