Derby Theatre is to be commended on bringing this relatively new play (2014) by the highly acclaimed playwright Torben Betts, produced by the Original Theatre Company, to the city. A strong first night house augurs well for the rest of the run, reaffirming the appetite of the Derby theatre going public to give something new a chance.
Of late, I have lamented the lack of strong modern comedy in theatre. Ayckbourn and Benfield penned productions still endure, albeit to an ageing audience , drawn on themes which are forty to fifty years old, and feel it. Even the odd Brian Rix farce still surfaces from time to time. In 1999, Torben Betts’s was invited to be resident dramatist at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre by Alan Ayckbourn. Ayckbourn in turn had worked as an actor under Brian Rix’s direction. Betts’ dramatic lineage is a credible one, and he studied in Liverpool, home of the best social dramatist of the eighties, Alan Bleasdale. Betts’ writing combines those former influences in comic farce, with the latter’s dark social satire.
“Invincible” is multi layered. It presents a middle- class couple, laid-off civil servant Oliver and his partner Emily, a Marxist/Buddhist painter (Alastair Whatley and Emily Bowker) down-sizing and recapitalizing by moving to the north of England, and the culture clash that provokes as they invite their new neighbours, Graham Brookes’ portly postman Alan ,and Elizabeth Boag’s busty dental receptionist Dawn, around for drinks. Olives and anchovies versus a case of beer. I suspect that the sympathies of the audience may shift depending upon where in the country the production is playing. In Derby, the audience was on the side of Alan and Dawn.
Emily is an Islington Socialist who doesn’t really like the “worker” bit in Socialist Worker, with an unflinching commitment to her view of what honesty and truth mean. Oliver’s Liberal values are in a constant state of reassessment, his patience constantly tested by his wife. Betts skilfully weaves traditional farce material, in this case in the guise of a dead cat, with contemporary political debate . The comic potential of the North/South divide is ruthlessly exploited, having fun with the stereotypes as they are deconstructed, before a more sombre, reflective finale.
The motor mouth, socially awkward, but benevolent, Alan has to deal with the brassy, taciturn, but quiet Dawn, in a relationship whose weaknesses, and strengths, emerge as the story unfolds. Oliver, in turn, has to deal with his tactless, self-centred, myopic, emotionally high maintenance, wife. And as social moral matters of the day are dissected, so is the matter of what abstract art loving Emily thinks of Alan’s cat paintings. The paintings of his cat “Vince”, named after HMS Invincible, giving the play its title, may lack polish, but his instincts are true and sure, unlike those of his hosts.
When Emily piously attacks politicians who send “misguided, ignorant” soldiers to war, the play turns on a sixpence, and in a dramatic gear-shift, their guest’s personal stake in the issue is revealed, grounding her esoteric deliberations in an instant.
The play opens revealing Victoria Spearing’s single set with toys scattered around the stage and a remotely controlled toy train skirting the stage’s perimeter, yet no children. “Das Kapital” sits on the bookshelf, Emily’s abstract art garnishes the walls.
Stephen Darcy’s direction, after Christopher Harper’s original direction, is pacey, fluid, and imaginative. Max Pappenheim’s music choice is eclectic and assured- from William Byrd, through Parry/Blake’s “Jerusalem”, to David Bowie’s “Heroes”. Scenes are divided by surreal dance sequences which work surprisingly well.
Written pre-Brexit, it now shines a post -Brexit light on Southern liberal values versus Northern realism. Trump’s visceral populist zeitgeist also surfaces in Alan’s simple, genuine, nationalism. It is Graeme Brookes characterisation of Alan which creates the greatest impression, from bumbling buffoon, through honest nationalist, to bewildered husband and father. A wonderful performance. Elizabeth Boag undertakes an equally significant, but diverging path, as his comely wife. Starting as a voluptuous, lady in red, scarlet woman, her broken second half persona is equally as compelling, and touchingly poignant.
“Invincible” combines a comedy of manners, borrowing from the modern tradition established by Mike Leigh in “Abigail’s Party”, with knock- about humour, and hoary jokes. It drags traditional late 20th century social comedy into the 21st century without abandoning its antecedents. It was reassuring to see the veteran Ayckbourn element in the audience well counter-balanced by a younger crowd too. Together we laughed out loud, offered spontaneous applause, and hushed silence for the dramatic twists, for a well written script and fine ensemble performance.
Playing till Saturday 4th February at Derby, then continuing on nationwide tour until 5th April