Parlour Games initially seems to be a broad farce based loosely on the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. However, as the play progresses it becomes something a little more subtle – a look at the foibles of the ruling classes and how they respond when they come up against challenges to their rule.
This is often explored in nicely crafted ways, from privilege illustrated through a fixed card game to the inheritance of cruelty shown through flashbacks. These moments are always well-crafted, and funny enough to never be preachy, but occasionally underexplored.
The satire is perhaps most successful when looking at those who claim to be fighting for change against their own privilege, but fail to back up their words when it comes down to it. Throughout the play Albert tries to convince Victoria of the virtues of reform, of listening to the people and improving their lives. However the play shows the many ways that these sentiments fail to be backed up with actions – from using ‘the people’ as a pawn in power games to reforms always being just enough to prevent revolt to Albert’s line which reveals his real feelings – ‘You can’t have a sensible discussion about the working classes when they’re in the room!’
Curiously for a show whose two main characters are cross-dressing, the flashes of satire that touch on gender are scattered lightly through the show and are often slight. While Albert’s lack of power compared to Victoria is frequently touched on, the exploration of him as probably one of the few men in Victorian Britain less powerful than their wives is so subtle that it is barely there at all. However this is not a major lack for a show already packed with enough themes that the gender of its casting slips from the mind easily when it is not focused on.
Parlour Games often feels like it is teetering on the edge of a manic, absurd energy, with dances and slapstick and wild flights of fancy and there are moments where it truly is hilarious, shocking belly laughs out of the audience. However some of the sections feel a little underpowered, like it hasn’t been stretched to its full, unrestrained potential. This is amplified at points by the meandering structure of the play – pretty episodic, at points it could almost be cabaret-esque, but there is enough of a plot that when points return without much forward momentum it can feel a little repetitive.
The performances are strong, especially Peter Baker in the role of a queen who is by turn domineering, terrified and crafty. The chemistry between him and Lucy Harrington as Albert is also convincing, making even sudden shifts from seductive to combative make sense. Andy Kelly as the servant is particularly funny when doubling as the main characters’ parental figures, alongside supplying musical accompaniment. The fact that behind the piano he easily fades into the background makes the climax of the story, where he finally resists his treatment, all the funnier.
Parlour Games was performed at the Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol. Click here for more details.