Writer: Torben Betts
Director: Chris Harper
Reviewer: Michael Gray
Social class is at the heart of much British comedy. Ayckbourn, in particular, is master of the awkwardness, the inferiority complex, the snobbishness and the culture clash.
Torben Betts’ play mines much the same seams. A bourgeois couple has downsized, thanks to the recession, from London to the terra incognita of the North. He’s a redundant civil servant; she’s a Buddhist, Marxist artist. Seeking to integrate into their new milieu, they invite a couple of neighbours round for drinks. She’s a perma-tanned dental receptionist; he’s a pot-bellied postman. And the scene is set for excruciating misunderstandings and increasingly heated exchanges of views. As, for instance, when anti-Blair Emily attacks the politicians who risk the lives of “misguided, ignorant” troops in foreign wars, only to find that Alan and Dawn are patriots, 110% behind our boys, not least because they have a personal link to the conflict. Or when Alan seeks Emily’s expert view of his paintings.
They’re stereotypes, of course, but beneath the clichés lie substantial back-stories, and it is these which will drive the second act into darker, more tragic territory. Two events occur almost as soon as they arrive. A confessional moment sees them confused in a gloriously awful misunderstanding, beautifully handled in the writing, and in the performance here. And this is the turning point when deeper feelings come to the surface and the personal, and political, divide widens between the middle class, who will survive despite everything, and the “real people” whose lives are destroyed.
A fine quartet gives rock solid, pin-sharp performances. Graeme Brookes is the boorish, boring Alan. He makes him a sympathetic character, despite his many faults. His great loves are his paintings, his cat Vince (for HMS Invincible, hence the play’s title) and his glamorous wife Dawn (Kerry Bennett). All of them taken from him by the new couple next door. Oliver, cricketer and civil servant is played by Alastair Whatley as a wet liberal who cannot share the socialist passions of his “highly strung” partner, beautifully characterised by Emily Bowker.
Christopher Harper’s production skilfully suggests these two couples who speak without listening, whose relationships have become tired. The groupings for the many confrontations are brilliantly appropriate. The scenes, some of them quite short, are linked with patriotic airs, from Pomp and Circumstance to Sailing By. The audience is drawn in to these troubled lives, moving from knowing laughter to total involvement.
Victoria Spearing’s convincing, lived-in design is introduced by a little model train, travelling through tiny wooden towns on the apron before coming to rest among the other toys, to be tidied away before the guests arrive.
Runs until 30 April 2016, then touring until 18 June 2016 | Image: OriginalTheatre Company