REVIEW: Victoria’s Knickers, Soho Theatre ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Victoria’s Knickers at Soho Theatre presented by the National Youth Theatre Rep Company.

National Youth Theatre Rep Season Victoria's Knickers Soho Theatre

The cast of Victoria’s Knickers. Photo: Helen Murray

Victoria’s Knickers
Soho Theatre
1st November 2018
3 Stars

This musicalised romp through the early career of a former working queen bears the same sort of relation to ITV’s ‘Victoria’ as ‘Carry On Cleo’ does to the Hollywood Liz Taylor spectacle, ‘Cleopatra’: it’s a trivialising, loud-mouthed, hip, funny, anarchic parody.  And, if you are the sort of person who likes that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you will like.  Imagine Edward Bond’s ‘Early Morning’ put through a hip-hop grinder in Josh Azouz’s self-consciously modish yarn, bending over backwards to be ‘cool’ and talk ‘street’, and you start to catch its wayward drift.  This is all about striking a devastatingly calculated pose.  Any other consideration is pretty much secondary.

The National Youth Theatre Rep Company, currently also playing at this address in the revival of ‘Consensual‘ reviewed here recently, are here to be seen in even more light-hearted mode, in Ned Bennett’s slick and busy, busy, busy production.  He never lets the pace slacken, and that is just as well in a story that is high on its own sense of importance and has serious issues with depth and reflection.  The ‘lyrics’ to the several musical numbers have been cobbled together by the writer in conjunction with trendy-sounding composer Chris Cookson ‘and members of the National Youth Theatre’, which might help explain their super-functionality and lack of vision.

Victoria's Knickers review Soho Theatre

Alice Vilanculo and Oseloka Obi in Victoria’s Knickers. Photo: Helen Murray

These are not, it must be said, shortcomings that audiences at the Soho Theatre seem in any hurry to bring before the production’s attention: they are, apparently, eager to be pleased by yet another escapist fantasy about the royal family that just refuses to go away.  If the NYT really thinks this is the most important topic they could come up, then so be it.  Once again, we turn our collective eyes away from concerns relating to the here and now (did anyone at the NYT ever hear of ‘Europe’?), and fix them, in a hazy, unfocused kinda way, on the distant past, the real ‘homeland’ of our interminable National Myth.

Victoria's Knickers National Youth Theatre

The cast of Victoria’s Knickers. Photo: Helen Murray

Doing the hypnotising here are all the cast from the other show, but given jollier roles to play.  Alice Vilanculo once again steals the day with her poise and stage presence in the lead and Jamie Ankrah is her foil, a figure apparently taken from history (let us not waste time here over Ireland or India…), who distinguished himself for his kleptomaniac fascination with the sovereign’s laundry.  (Really, NYT, if that is the level you want to work at….)  The tea-leaf’s sisters, Laurie and Isabel (Laurie Ogden and Isabel Adomakoh Young… yes, ISN’T that a coincidence?) star in the show’s one really dramatic scene: a re-run of ENO’s ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’-inspired execution scene in their production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Mazeppa’.  It is typical, however, of this production that while the ENO achieved a really terrifying effect, the NYT muggers only go for a student-type prank.  If you’re on that wavelength, then that’s fine: otherwise, after a while, you may find the insistent teenage japishness just a tiny little bit annoying.

Victoria's Knickers review Soho Theatre

Aidan Cheung, Muhammad Abubakar Khan and Olivia Dowd in Victoria’s Knickers. Photo: Helen Murray

Muhammad Abubakar Khan, Lord Conroy, is the one being chopped up by the saw in that scene, and he manages his demise with typical energy and conviction.  Somewhat miffed by his bride-to-be’s gallivanting is Oseloka Obi’s elegant Albert, who even has a go at speaking German (next time, NYT, please engage a language coach?).  And there’s a whole bunch of other characters played by Simran Hunjun (Duchess), Gary (Jeffrey Sangalang, and also in the role of The Fisherman), Christopher Williams (Len), Jay Mailer (Ernst, the Reveller and – I kid thee not – Dr Feel Good), Olivia Dowd (Brunhilda, Cecil and also Sonia), Leah Mains (another actor virtually playing themselves, as ‘Leah’), Fred Hughes-Stanton (ditto, and also Officer Troy), Marilyn Nnadebe (Referee – yes, they even have female refs in this revisionist costume-dramaland), Aidan Cheng (doing a fine job as the show’s main villain, Sasha), Francesca Regis (Toni), with music provided onstage (in addition to what emanates from Giles Thomas’ sound design) by Kazuma Costello, Natalie Smith and Isabelle Stone.

The presentation of the musical numbers (Musical Director, Arlene Naught; Music Producer, Jason Elliot) is arguably the main strength of the production.  The bleak, even crass, design by Hannah Wolfe is eye-catching if clearly done on the ultra-cheap, but – like the script – doesn’t really have anywhere to go.  And Jess Bernberg lights it all with clarity, ensuring we follow obediently the many switches of points of attention, both on- and off-stage.  Meghan Doyle is the Bryan Forbes Assistant Director.  I can understand why companies like NYT feel they have to keep themselves ‘relevant’, but the question always has to be, ‘relevant to what?’.

Until 10 November 2018

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