As an anxious, frustrated and oh so tired nation awaited yet another delayed Boris press conference last night, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of What a Carve Up! – itself a 1994 novel by Jonathan Coe, inspired in part by a 1961 movie of the same name (got that?!) – felt like darkly appropriate viewing. At first glance a murder mystery presented in the form of a true crime investigation, Tamara Harvey’s digital production skilfully builds the suspense, while also systematically taking apart those in power who enjoy all the benefits of their position, while allowing the rest of us to take the hit – financially, emotionally, and physically.
One night thirty years ago, six members of the Winshaw family – an all-powerful British dynasty who have fingers in every possible pie, and who “make the Murdochs look like the Waltons” – were brutally slaughtered in a variety of unpleasantly creative ways. The prime suspect has always been a troubled writer, Michael Owen, who’d been commissioned to write a book about the family, and who was known to be obsessed with an old black and white movie that closely mirrors the circumstances of the murders. But was he really the killer? Three decades later, Owen’s son Raymond (Alfred Enoch) starts looking into what really happened that night, and shares his findings in a video broadcast.
Only three members of the production’s stellar cast (which includes the likes of Derek Jacobi, Celia Imrie, Stephen Fry and Sharon D. Clarke) actually appear on screen, while the rest lend their voices to the various witnesses and victims who feature in the investigation. The only one to speak directly to the audience, Alfred Enoch’s charm and wry humour quickly convince us of his father’s innocence – but his monologue is also infused with simmering anger as he uncovers the pain caused by the Winshaws, not only for his own family but for so many others.
This rage is fuelled further by clips from a televised interview with Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button), the only surviving member of the Winshaw family, a despicable self-styled common sense guru, who continues to benefit from her family connections and has clearly learned nothing from her relatives’ misfortune. Both Fiona Button and interviewer Tamzin Outhwaite are outstanding in these deliciously tense scenes, their body language and facial expressions saying everything they’re not willing or able to say out loud.
What a Carve Up! is an entertaining and polished fictional thriller, whose complexity and intrigue will undoubtedly appeal to fans of both classic murder mystery and true crime documentaries. But we don’t need the sly references to Meghan Markle, Dominic Cummings (for whom, interestingly, not even the Winshaws are willing to accept responsibility) or throwing protective rings around things to remind us that this story is rooted in an all too brutal reality. In another time, we might have called it far-fetched, and the characters too monstrous to be believed. But this is 2020, when truth has proven itself over and over again to be infinitely stranger than fiction, and the production’s final gut-wrenching scene is no longer the stuff of dystopian nightmares but a story lifted straight out of real life. The Winshaws may be fictional, but their impact on all our lives is not – and that’s something we should all be angry about.