Victory Condition, Royal Court, London, review: A fairly chilly theatrical encounter

Both monologues are delivered in a monotone that makes it hard to stay tuned in to Chris Thorpe’s short two-hander 

Holly Williams
Wednesday 18 October 2017 11:38 BST
Jonjo O’Neill and Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s performances fail to lift this production about modern anxieties
Jonjo O’Neill and Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s performances fail to lift this production about modern anxieties (Helen Murray)

A white box is suspended amid dark scaffolding. Inside, it’s a fully furnished open-plan living space: modern, attractive, a little bland. A couple comes home from a holiday; they put clothes away, play a video game. They drink tea, then wine. They move around in that automatic, smoothly oiled way you do when you know your partner and your shared space unthinkingly well.

But what they say appears to bear no relation to this very normal domestic set-up.

Each character speaks a monologue, addressed to the audience, which the other doesn’t hear or respond to. Their stories are delivered in chunks, taken in turn.

Man, played by Jonjo O’Neill, is a sniper, describing taking aim at a woman behind a barricade, in a stand-off between a corrupt government and people’s uprising. He’s on the former side, accepting an imperfect system for an ordered, easy life. But he falls instantly in love with the woman he’s to kill, and slowly we realise it’s less about his side winning: all he wants to do is end the stand-off. To tear it all down. Start again.

Woman, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, describes going into her trendy graphic-design office, only to find the world has frozen. She can move, but the only other movement is in the pupils of her co-workers, which look like they’re… buffering. She becomes able to sense both tiny and hugely significant events happening everywhere in the world, all in this one moment. And somewhere, something so horrible was about to be done to a young girl, she managed to stop time. She needs the woman to save her, by rebooting the whole world on a computer. Force-quit. Start again.

Chris Thorpe’s short play – only an hour – is a mysterious thing. There’s an arresting disconnect between the familiar domesticity and the stories, but they’re compelling, beautifully written, if throbbing with anxieties: about a potential apocalypse, technological overload, human cruelty and callousness. Man riffs on society as a sickly, overstretched organism (“I will shock the animal back into some kind health”). Woman riffs on how disasters will not be like in the movies, but slow and banal (“you will wonder at the escalating price of shower gel… you will queue slightly longer than usual”).

Under Vicky Featherstone’s direction, however, both monologues are delivered in a monotone that makes it hard to stay tuned. It’s as if the tone of voice is on the same flat autopilot as their movements. Presumably both are intended to convey how we live our lives in a bland daze. But it doesn’t exactly thrill.

Why tell these stories with that movement? I’m not entirely sure. In the final moments, after a blue flash, for a second the actors turn to each other and seem to connect. A theory (and it could be well, well wide of the mark): Woman did reboot the system, and in doing so changed both their lives. That what we’d been watching was the movements of their parallel, less-dramatic, more content (perhaps) selves – another simultaneous reality they snapped into at the end.

Maybe she was even his target beforehand, and now those who were on opposite sides are instead together? Even… mutually in love? The man says early on in his monologues: “This is the story of the difference between us.” But maybe the difference between them – the differences between us all – aren’t really so great?

Or maybe that’s just an over-romantic reading, slapping on a desire for resolution and unity. Actually, Victory Condition makes for a fairly chilly theatrical encounter. But it’s also one that buzzes around your brain, its daring use of disconnect between word and deed also daring you to at least try to make connections.

‘Victory Condition’ is at the Royal Court till 21 October

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