Invincible – The STUDIO, Birmingham REP

Writer: Torben Betts

Director: Christopher Harper

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? The Original Theatre Company seeks to look at that question in Invincible.

Take Emily, our irresistible force. She has enjoyed all the benefits of being well-off and middle-class. She is able to indulge her passion for painting and her extreme left-wing views – indeed, such an ideologue is she that she will not move her position for anything – so when she and partner Oliver (marriage is clearly a medieval concept not to be countenanced, even to soulmate Oliver, even to make his mother’s last few months on earth happier) hit straitened times and have to relocate from London, she positively insists on renting a home (property is theft, after all) in a poorer neighbourhood and insists it is their duty to send their children to the local failing school. Emily has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to share them, wanting to always be truthful, determined not to offend but nevertheless offensive, utterly lacking in social skills.

Then there is Alan, the immovable object. He and wife Dawn were born and bred in the area. He was a chef in the navy and is now a postman, unable to believe that Dawn, the most beautiful woman he knows, chose him. He is ebullient, also has strong opinions, is also not afraid to share. His views do, however, seem to be the diametric opposite of those of Emily’s. They do share one trait, however, and that is both are akin to crocodiles – all mouth and no ears.

What of their other halves, Oliver and Dawn? They seem doomed to spend their lives being preached at and rarely able to get a word in. Can either of these worms turn?

So the scene is set for potentially the most awkward ever house-warming/meet the neighbours evening, as the terribly PC and unwittingly patronising Oliver and Emily invite Alan and Dawn. Keen to strike the right note, there is no alcohol, olives are served in china teacups and coffee-table books about Karl Marx are on display – this last leading to Alan’s inevitable comment about the Marx brothers films and comedy.

And the first half is indeed a terribly awkward, but riotously funny, affair. Writer Torben Betts has written some cracking dialogue, well observed and finely crafted, for all our protagonists; while Christopher Harper’s direction ensures that we see beyond the obvious: and what becomes clear is that our irresistible force might just be a storm in a teacup – why is Emily so neurotic and anti-alcohol? – and our immovable object might well be hard but is simultaneously brittle and prone to smash. As events unfold in the more introspective second half, both couples find themselves facing some uncomfortable truths about themselves, their relationships and their pasts.

Invincibleplays with our emotions, inviting us to laugh at, not with, Emily (Emily Bowker) and Alan (Graeme Brookes). We empathise with the plights in which Oliver (Alastair Whatley) and Dawn (Kerry Bennett) find themselves. But as the evening progresses and we begin to get under the characters’ skins, we begin to understand all the emotional undercurrents that drive the characters and their behaviours.

That the characters are so very real and cringeworthy is a tribute to the skills of playwright, director and actors. Bowker’s Emily and Brookes’ Alan, while over-the-top, never stray into caricature, remaining sympathetic. Whatley’s slightly bewildered Oliver is the epitome of a somewhat socially awkward and overlooked partner. His physicality and timing are spot on. Perhaps the character with the longest and most difficult journey is Bennett’s Dawn as she moves away from her initial brashness and shows her vulnerability.

This is a superb piece of theatre at once surprising us with its twists but with events that are somehow inevitable. It will play with your emotions and maybe lead you to reflect on your own drivers and behaviour.

Runs until 21 May 2016 and on tour | Image:Jack Ladenburg

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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