By Harriet Purbrick and Matias Sifontes
All photos by Joe Fenna.
Harry Daisley’s original melodramatic comedy transports the audience to an ethereal land divided by binary social extremes.
Even before the play started, the aesthetic focus in the writing and production was clear from the elegant stage design. The production team (Ellery Turgoose, Sam Cooke and Ellie Gelber) ingeniously created pastel-coloured lampshades (perfectly hung at varying heights to meet eye level), sheets of fabric draped over walls and furniture, some with art, some with captivating textures, as well as a backdrop of hand-drawn sketches (later exploited for some creative shadow work). All this set up the depth and dimensions of the story.
This careful attention to detail was explored even more thoroughly through the costume design (envisioned by Rosie Margree). This takes place on two levels. Firstly, the opulence of the costumes reflected the majesty and gravitas at the Empress’ court whilst the Chancellor’s costumes reflected his growth as a character from his white blank canvas robe to his shoulder-padded jacket, which demonstrated his attempt to express newfound confidence. On a secondary level, the characters’ fashion sense expressed the themes of identity and wealth in the play, particularly through the eyes of Ludwig who dresses the Chancellor, and Selene (Iris Webster) who interprets and analyses the fashion in the imperial court.
Ludwig presents the Chancellor’s new look.
The play’s sense of polarity between extremes was reflected in the brilliant performances of the siblings: the Empress (Marta Vittoria Fiorini) and the Chancellor (Beth Crossley). Yet, both characters managed to find nuance between this binary, predicated on Daisley’s layered script. Though the Empress first appears to be a stereotypical haughty queen, we gradually gain an insight into her sympathetic side. Equally, the Chancellor’s past reveals a more troubled background to his tyrannical façade. The character Ludwig (Erin Cooke), who is held captive by the Chancellor, is desired by both siblings as they seek personal validation through the act of wearing his fashion pieces. Yet at the same time, Ludwig discovers that dressing the Chancellor also gives him a sense of self-fulfilment. This further balanced out the extremes and emphasised the underlying similarities between the siblings.
Marta Vittoria Fiorini as the Empress with Isla Defty as Helene (left) and Alica Edwards-Farrer as Quintus (right).
In terms of the performances, the three protagonists all lived up to the demands of Daisley’s dramatic yet complex characterisation. The double act of lads, Burt (Ruby Sparks) and Kurt (Maisy Dodd), delivered an astonishing performance by bouncing off each other’s energy (or lack thereof – “decent”). Sparks’ acting stood out for her facial expressions, appropriate monotone voice, and maintaining her natural presence even when she wasn’t speaking – a rare accomplishment in student theatre.
Kurt and Burt. Far right: Barnaby Milton as Mr Alexander.
The sound designer, Callie O’Brien, also deserves a special mention. Music was utilised both to enhance the opulence at court, and on one particular occasion, gave us a moment of will-they-won’t-they homoerotica for the ages in an impromptu dance scene with the Chancellor and Ludwig to Yes Sir, I Can Boogie. For those with a less powerful imagination, or who have never read fan-fiction, see this scene for reference.
Generally speaking, the script was very strong. Jokes, both one-liners and running gags were peppered regularly throughout, revealing Daisley’s great sense of humour. In the second half, the comedy veered more on pantomime, but the laughs continued to land with oomph. Moreover, he was able to complement this comedy with more poignant moments, encompassed in the soliloquies’ beautiful prose. The references to Drag Race and Machiavelli’s The Prince were seamlessly (pun intended) intertwined.
However, the two halves were somewhat uneven: the first act pulled at many threads, some of which were let go in the second half. There were perhaps some missed opportunities for continuity between the acts, for instance there was no sense of threat when Ludwig breaches the life-time, life-threatening contract he made with the Chancellor in the first half. The ending refused to give all the answers – we are left wondering whether the siblings really are reconciled. Whether this is a positive or negative is up to the audience to decide.
Overall, The Velvet Veins is an ambitious production that asks difficult questions about art, identity and wealth, brilliantly performed by a talented cast and production team. Everyone needs to experience the truly unbelievable attention-to-detail in the stage and costume design.
The Velvet Veins continues its run at The Pyramid Theatre until Saturday 19th March. Tickets are available here.