Theatre Review: WHAT A CARVE UP! – Barn Theatre, Cirencester

Alfred Enoch in WHAT A CARVE UP!

Employing multiple narrative styles, different perspectives and a highly fragmented timeline, WHAT A CARVE UP! builds up the story meticulously to entice the audience

4 out of 5 stars

As regional theatres in England prepare for a second lockdown, the Barn Theatre in Cirencester takes to the spotlight with the premiere of their new digital play, WHAT A CARVE UP! 

Based on Jonathan Coe’s satirical novel, WHAT A CARVE UP! chronicles the events leading up to the fictional ‘Winshaw Murders’. Back in 1991, six members of one of the most corrupt, powerful and toxic families in the country are brutally murdered in their family home. The prime suspect is young novelist, Michael Owen, who is in the middle of compiling a history of the family, but did he actually commit the crime? The story is told through the eyes of two children, Josephine (Fiona Button) the last remaining Winshaw and Michael Owen’s son, Raymond (Alfred Enoch) who also acts as the narrator.

Fans of crime podcast SERIAL will be familiar with the story-telling style of WHAT A CARVE UP! Much like Coe’s original novel, the play employs multiple narrative styles, different perspectives and a highly fragmented timeline to meticulously build up the story and entice the audience.

The digital play makes liberal use of historical film and photographs to create an invented world of wealth, scandal and early deaths, with recordings ‘from the past’ allowing the voices of luminaries including Sir Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Sharon D Clarke, Griff Rhys Jones and Celia Imrie to deliver cameos.

Tamzin Outhwaite & Fiona Button in WHAT A CARVE UP!

WHAT A CARVE UP! works best when the actors appear on the screen, Alfred Enoch delivering an engaging performance as Michael Owen’s son, Raymond. Fiona Button is equally impressive as Josephine, the last surviving member of the Winshaw family and her interview scenes with Tamzin Outhwaite really flesh out the story and the characters.

Yet, while this film version of WHAT A CARVE UP! is built up meticulously, it also involves a great deal of repetition. This primarily acts as a plot device to highlight important messages but the way in which it is delivered – the rewinding of tape recordings two and three times as one example – has a tendency to frustrate after a while and may leave viewers feeling a little impatient.

Outside of the live-action scenes with Enoch, Button and Outhwaite, the lack – and repetition – of the visual elements also make you feel this play may be better suited to radio, its strengths lying in the audio recordings and Enoch’s narration.

That said, the underlying plot is strong and the political subtext direct is still shockingly relevant, aided by Henry Filloux-Bennett who has done a decent job of updating the 1994 text with modern references including Dominic Cummings, Trump, Megan Markle, food standards and free school meals.

Credit must also go to the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre for commissioning this online production, helping to keep regional theatre alive by turning viewers’ sitting rooms into a theatre.

WHAT A CARVE UP! is available to stream until 29 November 2020