at the Royal Court Theatre, Thursday 16th May 2013
*Originally written for Exeunt*
There’s something fitting about the fact that Will Adamsdale’s The Victorian in the Wall, a play which considers, amongst other things, property, middle class-values and the past, is the last play Dominic Cooke scheduled to be produced at the Royal Court, programmed jointly with incoming artistic director Vicky Featherstone. It acts like a Clybourne Park in reverse, a Pain and the Itch gone wrong, or a Jerusalem without the anti-hero. And here’s the thing: it’s all the better for it.
For unlike those structured, verbose pieces, Adamsdale’s play (presented in collaboration with Fuel) is imbued with a real sense of play (in the programme, we are told that the process was a mix between “devised and written”, thus proving that the two are not “mutually exclusive”). The makeshift, lo-fi presentation of the text mingles smoothly with the almost revolutionary ending, completely turning on its head the nostalgic way in which Clybourne Park thought about property and the past.
At first, it seems that the play isn’t going to do much more than skewer middle-class values; Guy and his girlfriend Fi are planning on getting a knock-through, though she’s going away for a week to do some work in the “third-sector” so has to leave him in charge. He’s a self-confessed “lazy, middle-class writer” and it rather seems we won’t get much more than a gentle ribbing about being relatively well-off and the problems which arise when doing work on a house. That is, of course, right up until the moment when Guy finds a Victorian in his wall.
From this moment on, we are in an absurd, somewhat unreal space, as Mr Elms (the Victorian, played with staid emotion by Matthew Steer) recounts his story of a love affair with a music hall star when he lived in the house. This plays out alongside Guy’s doomed attempts to Get Things Done, which ultimately fail due to having to look after the new occupants (around halfway through, the pair become a trio as a man Guy “adopted”, Fortunately Maybe, comes knocking). Rather than giving him a new appreciation of the world around him, however, the presence of his new friends causes him to fall deeper into a reverie.
There is a not oblique suggestion here that we are once again living in an era of Victorian values and divides, but Adamsdale goes deeper than this by contemplating how we place property in relation to time, allowing both time periods to play out simultaneously in a way which gently parodies Stoppard’s Arcadia. References to pop culture (specifically The Wire) are littered throughout, and the way in which lots of clues to the conclusion are placed throughout only to become damned useful later on is clearly a joke made at the expense of the well-made play.
The real success of The Victorian in the Wall, however, lies in its utterly joyous, aurally inventive production, co-directed by Adamsdale and Lyndsey Turner, which moves from scene to scene swiftly and is punctuated by Chris Branch’s silly songs. Michael Vale’s design, complete with dozens of boxes, gives only a blueprint of the house, which means the five performers have a blank space in which to work, emphasising the absurdity of the piece. I’ve always found Adamsdale’s innocence and energy in performance perpetually fascinating, and his work here is no different.
There’s no doubt that the piece appeals to a particular sense of humour, one which can keep up with the cultural allusions and subtle joking occurring throughout, but when you’re guffawing every few minutes the charm is nigh-on impossible to resist. The Victorian in the Wall also ends in a way which I’m sure has some resonances for Featherstone; as everything goes completely tits-up and it seems like Guy’s world is about to literally and metaphorically collapse around him, Adamsdale posits the completely revolutionary idea that sometimes, if we want to move forward, we have to start completely afresh. To get rid of old ghosts, therefore, we may have to do a few knock-throughs.