Review: Victory Condition (Royal Court)

Jonjo O’Neill and Sharon Duncan-Brewster star in Chris Thorpe’s new play at the Royal Court

Best of times, worst of times, blah, blah, blah. Chris Thorpe‘s Victory Condition is like two plays in one. A humdrum dumbshow of domestic life sits on top of a cataclysmic prose poem about the world’s many ills. If the effect is curious – half present, half absent – the point is clear. Those of us living the late capitalist dream, drifting through our lives of leisure, are essentially fiddling with our iPhones while Rome (and the rest) burns.

A couple return home with small suitcases, apparently post-holiday, to a standard studio flat: glossy white corner kitchen, simple grey sofa, flat screen TV. As they potter through the routine of returning – M&S meal for two, a shower and a sit-down in front of the box – barely acknowledging each other’s presence or exchanging a word, the two actors turn outwards and talk to the audience. Jonjo O’Neill narrates a popular revolution and an alien landing. Sharon Duncan Brewster talks of heart attacks on tube platforms and depressed pilots downing passenger jets. She summons an apocalypse that no-one really notices – an end with a whimper, not with a bang. The sense is of simultaneity: these lacklustre lives co-exist with a world falling in on itself.

Screens dominate the pair’s homecoming, as they pour more attention into tablets and teles than into time spent together. They suck us in too. A console game becomes impossibly transfixing, pulling our gaze into a pixelated world. It’s a first-person game: a hunter-gather’s existence, axe in hand, life on the line. These people are playing a more primitive existence, fending for themselves on their flat screen TV. Thorpe’s title comes from gaming, a reference to the objectives required to level-up. The implication is that these two are, to borrow a phrase, 'winning at life'. The question is are they?

It’s not just the mundanity that suggests otherwise. There’s a flicker of precarity that might bring it all down. As O’Neill stares blankly out the window, the moment feels ominous. It’s as if the distance between the two worlds might collapse. It raises the possibility of danger on the doorstep. Terror here, revolution now.

It’s an intriguing juxtaposition – banality and catastrophe. For all we know we should focus on the latter, the words, it’s the image of nothing that sucks us in. Thorpe toys with the same distraction he diagnoses, and every so often his text snaps us back into ourselves and the present. "You are here," O’Neill insists casually. You drift through the play in spite of yourself.

That’s also the issue. Thorpe’s writing has always had a kind of blunt force. His texts grab you by the throat and force you to face up to life’s horrors. Victory Condition‘s form rather disarms that. By undercutting its own urgency, it ends up feeling contrived – a house style that wallows in the world’s problems. That everything we see onstage seems largely OK – nice wine, takeaway pizza, a night in on the sofa – only doubles the sense that pessimism and paranoia are a default mode, not just for Thorpe, but for the Royal Court as a whole. Though Vicky Featherstone cuts an overtly self-aware coda, her production nods to its own internal contradictions and Chloe Lamford‘s curtain-up stresses that we too are watching in relative comfort. Outside, meanwhile, the world turns.

Victory Condition runs at the Royal Court until 21 October.