Writer: Torben Betts
Director: Stephen Darcy
Designer: Victoria Spearing
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Following its extremely successful tour last year, Original Theatre Company’s production of Invincible, now directed by Stephen Darcy and with one change of cast, has embarked on a second tour that will take it through to April. No wonder, this is a fine production of a play as easy to enjoy and admire as it is difficult to categorise.
The Ayckbourn comparison is always made with Torben Betts and there is much truth in it: the keen observation of social manners, the sharpness of the dialogue, the love of the comedy of embarrassment, the growing sense of unease that subverts a comic situation. Torben Betts has described his work as “entertaining tragedy”; the tone of Invincible, even as it darkens, never suggests tragedy until the closing minutes, but the impression you take away is of lives tragically ruined.
It begins as quite another play. As the recession bites, Oliver and Emily have relocated to the North. Though currently of modest means, they come from privileged middle-class backgrounds. Both are described as “left-leaning”, but Emily has leant so far she has fallen over. She does not believe in marriage; she does not believe in inherited wealth; she does not believe in private property; she believes the British Army is the tool of global capitalism; she wants to live among “real people”. And she takes it all so personally: when Oliver re-joins the Labour Party, she furiously denounces it as a personal betrayal.
In the opening scene, delivered with precise naturalism by Alastair Whatley and Emily Bowker, quick-fire over-lapping dialogue reveals her obsession with the rightness of her views and the injustice of it all, while he tries ruefully for a sensible compromise. When she arranges for the visit of their new neighbours by playing Thomas Tallis (how could Oliver not know the difference between Tallis and Byrd?) and setting out Karl Marx as a coffee table book, we know the humour is going to broaden.
So it does. The neighbours are Alan, a postman (Graeme Brookes) whose devotion to the England football team is only matched by his affection for his cat named after the aircraft carrier he served on, and Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) whose glamorous appearance hides acute boredom and frustration. Alan can’t stop talking and admits at boring length how boring he is; Emily can’t avoid saying the wrong thing and betrays her inner feelings in the classic line, “Why don’t you listen to me? You might learn something!” Though even Emily is silenced by the walk-out provoked by her final faux-pas, it’s clear nobody has really learnt anything.
There have been hints of tragedy in the back stories of both families. By the second act, new ones arise, spiced by comedy in at least one case. The quality of the production and all four performances show in the skill with which the tone changes. Emily Bowker, so stridently funny, becomes recognisably human; in Alastair Whatley’s understated performance the new decisive Oliver is as lost as the old bumbling one. The focus for much of the second act is on the metropolitan couple, but in the end, it is the final haunting scenes of Dawn and Alan that remain with you.
Touring nationwide | Image: Manuel Harlan