Writer: Josh Azouz
Director: Ned Bennett
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The twentieth century marked the end of the dynastic marriage market for the Royal Family paving the way for weddings to, largely aristocratic, commoners – photographers, the daughters of businessmen and even an American actress. Henry VIII may have created a new church to marry Anne Boleyn, but other monarchs only thought about it including Elizabeth I who toyed with Robert Dudley for years and George IV who was denied his Mrs Fitzherbert, leaving us with some of the great “what ifs” of history.
The National Youth’s theatre’s new show Victoria’s Knickers imagines a romance between the 18-year old uncrowned Queen and the man who broke into her palace repeatedly in the late 1830s. Edward Jones is from a family with Chartist-sympathies who plan to force their way into Buckingham Palace and confront the Queen with their People’s Charter. Edward makes it alone and an unexpected affection develops between them, one challenged by Victoria’s need to marry strategically and the growing discontent among the working people of London.
Panto season has begun early and Josh Azouz’s new show is pretty light on its feet, full of heightened scenarios and larger-than-life characters that has a fun take on Queen Victoria’s early years. While Jones’ story is largely imagined, the facts of Victoria’s reign give the play its structure, capturing the over-zealous attentions of her mother, her hatred of Lord Conroy who tried to control her and the rather cold reception Prince Albert received in the first months of their political courtship.
In this pseudo- nineteenth-century meets hip-hop production, the tone is always playful and Azouz has written some wonderfully snappy dialogue for Victoria and Edward as they banter back and forth as an innocent bond grows between them. And all of this is framed by the Chartist movement which adds a major obstacle for this odd couple as troubled times lead Victoria to think about her duty to the nation while his sisters are frustrated by Edward’s inability to influence his Queen.
The trouble is the real love story is between Victoria and Albert, so however much Azouz wants us to believe that Edward stood a chance we know he really didn’t, which makes it difficult for Victoria’s Knickers to reach a satisfying conclusion, and you feel it unravel in the final third of the show as it pulls between slapstick humour and a meaningful ending. It is at its best in the more exuberant pantomime moments and playing the whole thing in that style would work really well, allowing Azouz to retain all the existing elements, including his villain Lord Conroy, and build to a bigger ending.
Alice Vilanculo gives us a very down-to-earth and likeable Victoria, a typical teenager starting to find her own voice. The relationship with Jamie Ankrah’s Edward is engaging with a genuine chemistry between them that interestingly skirts both friendship and something deeper without fully committing. Vilanculo’s Queen is tough and worldly with a strong sense of her own destiny which makes for an engaging performance, and while you root for Edward we know it can’t end with a wedding.
There are a range of outrageous supporting characters including Simran Hunjun’s Duchess who resents her daughter’s growing independence, and Muhammad Abubakar Khan’s baddie Lord Conroy. Most of the laughs are reserved for Aidan Cheng’s Sasha and partner Olivia Dowd’s Cecil, secret police who inflict hideous tortures on their victims and have just the right amount of stage time.
A couple of meta-moments including a producer who stops the play just doesn’t make sense, and the strings trio supporting Victoria’s RnB vocals clash horribly several times, but there is an entirely random but entertaining sword fight between Albert dressed as Black Panther and an agitator dressed as Spiderman for absolutely no reason, but it’s a lot of fun. All the elements are there but with a little work and greater focus on the absurdity, Victoria’s Knickerscould be the most outrageous relationship Queen Victoria never had.
Runs Until 10 November 2018 | Image: Contributed