The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 18th May, 2016
If Alan Ayckbourn ever took amphetamines he might come up with a play like Torben Betts’s Invincible. While Ayckbourn lets his middle-class monsters reveal themselves through the action, those written by Betts arrive on stage raging and ranting at each other. We see them for what they are right away.
Idealist couple Oliver and Emily have moved from London to be among ‘real people’ oop North, in a self-serving, patronising way. She is worse than he is in her adherence to her principles, almost to the point of militancy. Her left-wing views, most of them not abhorrent in themselves, are savagely satirised. She is the hard-nosed ideologue, and he is the weak streak of piss, hopelessly socially awkward. To further their ends, they have invited the local couple from next door around for the evening. Their evening soon descends into a nightmarish comedy of manners that makes us cringe and laugh in equal measure. Alan is an overweight, overbearing football bore; wife Dawn is something of a trophy, stunning looking even after having ‘knocked out’ three children.
But there is much more to this play than social satire and slanging matches. Betts sets up the characters as laughing stocks and we laugh at them over and over, but then cleverly he shows us the pain behind each of their facades. We learn why Oliver and Emily don’t drink, why her abstract painting is about grief… We glimpse Alan’s insecurity and Dawn’s fears for her soldier son. And so we move from laughing at them to feeling for them – the play reminds us that beyond our judgmental preconceptions of people, everyone has their own private pain.
Emily Bowker is both fearsome and devastatingly vulnerable as firebrand Emily, while Alastair Whatley proves he is perfect for Whitehall fodder or middle-class sitcom. Graeme Brooks’s Alan is hilariously boring and surprisingly sensitive, while Kerry Bennett’s glamorous Dawn falls apart before our very eyes.
Christopher Harper’s direction maintains a breakneck speed. This is a loud and brash production that knocks the wind out of you with the savagery of its humour and the emotional intensity of the characters’ circumstances, superbly portrayed by a remarkable quartet.
Hilarious and devastating, Invincible is another jewel in the crown of The Original Theatre Company, best known for powerful productions of historical drama. It is great to see them branching out into contemporary comedy.