REVIEW (From a Distance): What a Carve Up! (Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre & New Wolsey Theatre)

Regular readers will know that we are big fans of The Barn Theatre in Cirencester. They have been putting out so much brilliant online content this year, as well as leading the way in getting audiences back into their physical venue. Their latest online offering is a co-production with the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey, What a Carve Up! gives Jonathan Coe’s 1994 novel a distinctly 2020 twist.

“It’s twenty-five years since I wrote the book but unfortunately its political satire seems as relevant as ever.”

Jonathan Coe

What a Carve Up! tells of the events leading up to the murder of six members of the Winshaw family, a powerful dynasty with influence in powerful organisations within politics, media, banking, healthcare, agriculture and the arts. Gathered together for the reading of Mortimer Winshaw’s will, the family find themselves reunited with their relative far earlier than expected, each meeting a grissly but appropriate end. The police look no further than author, Michael Owen, who has disappeared after being present on the night of the murders. Having worked on a history of the Winshaws, Owen’s intense dislike for the family is well known. So it seems like an open and shut case when it becomes apparent that he has an obsession with 1960s comedy-horror film What a Carve Up, the events of which bear an uncanny resemblance to the scene of the crime. But as the story unfolds, we discover that Michael Owen is more closely connected to the Winshaws than even he could have imagined, and start to question what truly happened on that fateful night.

Alfred Enoch in What a Carve Up!

It’s a gripping and darkly humorous piece of not-quite-theatre which, recorded individually by an impressive cast (including the voices of Stephen Fry, Celia Imrie, Rebecca Front and Griff Rhys Jones), is more of a short film in the style of a true crime drama than a play. Re-imagined as a modern murder mystery, the story is told via two newly written characters, both of whom were just babies when the infamous events unfolded. In 2020, Michael Owen’s son, Raymond Owen (Alfred Enoch) is searching for the truth. Surrounded by newspaper clippings and post-it notes, he presents the evidence in the case against his father. Key to his analysis is an interview with the sole surviving member of the family, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button) who is being given quite the grilling by the interviewer (Tamzin Outhwaite). The story is pieced together by Raymond using old footage and audio clips of the Winshaws, with Josephine’s interview at the heart of it all.

Fiona Button in What a Carve Up!

It’s a brilliant way of weaving together Coe’s commentary on Thatcherism with a critical look at the politics of 2020. The script is witty and the satire cutting, if not always subtle. The standout performance comes from Fiona Button as the entitled and intensely dislikeable Josephine, who name drops powerful people in the same casual manner as she discusses the butchering of her mother and other relatives. Meanwhile Outhwaite makes a scathing interviewer who reacts perfectly to Josephine’s outrageous pronouncements. They are the only two cast members who are actually seen on screen together (the interview set-up lending itself perfectly to social distancing) while the rest have recorded their segments separately. Most are voice-overs, which are stitched together seamlessly with video footage and introduced by Enoch, who acts as the narrator. It’s a very slick production and not just for a lockdown show. It isn’t the kind of thing which has been filmed in poorly lit bedrooms using home-made props. It’s genuine television quality and if you didn’t know it had been filmed in 2020 you would be none the wiser.

Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button in What a Carve Up!

To make it more of an event, you can order a premium ticket which includes a programme and a pre-theatre dining recipe booklet by world renowned chef and Darjeeling Express owner Asma Khan. We were too disorganised to actually go out and get ingredients before we watched the show, but the recipes look amazing (and, crucially, there is also a vegetarian option). The other great thing about this show is that viewing links last 48 hours meaning you can watch (and re-watch!) whenever you want to within that time period. This is a massive bonus from our perspective as we find it almost impossible to watch streamed shows that are limited to a particular start time (as that start time inevitably coincides with the munchkins’ bedtime). We ended up sitting down to watch it at around 10.30pm, much as we would with any other bingeworthy murder mystery. And we loved it.

Perfectly timed (coincidentally) to coincide with a month long lockdown in England and (presumably rather more intentionally) with the US presidential election, What a Carve Up! is a polished production that provides a couple of hours of sorely needed escapism from scrolling social media and watching CNN, as well as a disconcerting reminder that the underlying themes of political corruption, greed and the concentration of power in the hands of the elite remain ever relevant. A must-watch this month.

What a Carve Up! runs from 31 October – 29 November 2020. Tickets can be purchased at A portion of the proceeds raised will be donated to a freelance fund to support the creative workforce that the theatres would not be able to survive without.

We received a complimentary press ticket in return for a review.