Tag Archives: Torben Betts

Four’s Company


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.


When worlds collide: Alastair Whatley and Graeme Brooks

Acts of Violence


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd March, 2016


The iconic British film was based on the novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis.  This production by Northern Stage returns to that source material but keeps the film’s title – for publicity reasons, I imagine.

Adapted by Torben Betts, this is a story of revenge.  Jack Carter, old school gangster, returns to his North-East home for his brother’s funeral.  While there, he investigates what happened and determines to make those who put Frank in a box pay.  He winkles out the bad guys and lets them have it.  That’s about the size of it.  It’s almost Jacobean, almost Greek tragedy – Jack’s lust for vengeance brings about his own destruction.

As the anti-hero, Kevin Wathen is utterly convincing, delivering the script’s more lyrical, beat-poetic passages as well as the harsh, four-letter dialogue, with menace and aggression.

In fact, this is the most sweary script you will hear outside of Berkoff.  If a word doesn’t begin with F, it begins with C, in a relentless barrage of hard language.  It establishes the milieu as a rough, tough world and, at times, it’s also funny.  Like being hit over the head with a Viz magazine.

Ever-present is Jack’s dead brother, Frank (Martin Douglas) – someone for our narrator to talk to, rather than addressing us directly.  We are very much in Carter’s mind.  Douglas is also a mean drummer, underscoring the action in a way that brings to mind recent film Birdman – as well as evoking the jazz of the period.

Amy Cameron is excellent as Jack’s orphaned niece Doreen – able to give as good as she gets verbally, but also vulnerable and afraid.  Victoria Elliott is also good as tart-with-no-heart Margaret and female gangster Glenda – unrecognisable in a change of wig.  It is Michael Hodgson’s characterisations that distinguish his mob boss Kinnear and Irish heavy Con.  This latter has a terrifying scene with young Doreen – the play is very much a slow-burner but moments of tension arise and are expertly handled by director Lorne Campbell.

I also liked Donald McBride’s comically sweary toff, Brumby, and the set (by 59 Productions Limited) evokes brutalised post-war Britain: a landscape of mounds of broken red bricks, viewed through the arch of a viaduct or railway bridge.  It is over this rubble that the characters pick their way, striving to be king of the tip.

It’s an uncomfortable watch and far from a good advertisement for humanity, and it runs a little longer than perhaps it needs to.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it as such, but it’s so stylish and well-executed (loved the shadows!), I can’t help but admire the production values and the performances.

Get Carter assaults the ears and leaves a nasty taste – a brutal tale of brutal folk in a brutal place.

get carter

Kevin Wathen (Photo: Topher McGrillis)