FringeReview UK 2017
Now directed by Stephen Darcy, arriving at Theatre Royal Brighton for just three days (twice on Wednesday) Torben Betts’ 2014 Invincible has been revived with three of the original cast quartet. Victoria Spearing’s set is a small carnage of children’s litter and as military brass band music from Sam Pappenheim fades a toy train chunters across foregrounded rails picked out by Andy Purves’ lighting. A series of short runs on tour marks an unusual decision by the Original Theatre Company production with Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Ends March 30th.
Torben Betts’ 2014 Invincible has been revived with three of the original cast quartet, now directed by Stephen Darcy, arriving at Theatre Royal Brighton for just three days (twice on Wednesday). It’s an unusual decision by the Original Theatre Company production with Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds but best advice is: see it.
Victoria Spearing’s set is a small carnage of children’s litter and as military brass band music from Sam Pappenheim fades a toy train chunters across foregrounded rails picked out by Andy Purves’ lighting. Migration?
Oliver (Alastair Whatley) and Emily (Emily Bowker) have moved up north to clear debt slavery and integrate with ‘real’ people though their real daughters are kept at bay upstairs, Emily paranoid something might happen. Something did to their son: he stopped breathing as they celebrated the sale of one of her abstracts, splattering displacement if ever there was one. Ever since, their frozen response to living turns on Oliver being able to make no dent in Emily’s ideologically-driven tirades, whether his joining Facebook is pathetic, their marrying to please his dying mother, sending children to some local failing school. Even Emily’s aerobics to Byrd’s liturgical music despite atheism, are a snap away from breakdown.
Enter the neighbours Emily’s icebreaking with: Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) and later when England’s lost again Alan (Graeme Brooks). So far a comedy of manners, uptight Londoners meet uninhibited northern Dawn, sexually fizzing and openly flirting with Oliver, as Alan does in a male-bonding way, discovering Oliver’s cricketing prowess and knowledge of Alan’s naval past – Oliver worked for the MOD. There’s a deeper parallel. Both have two daughters, but the other couple’s son is very much alive. Betts explores class fissures: as Dawn puts it later, it’s their children who fight, not the PM’s son, the children of Oliver and Emily.
Boag’s move from siren to a woman walled in by Alan’s noise reveals her shredded aspirations, her boredom, her life on hold. Brookes magnificently digs at Alan’s ballooning insecurities, dangerous fragility snapping off in jokes and stock reflexes.
And there’s the cat Alan named after his aircraft carrier Invincible, Vince; and the paintings he’s made of the cat and off-limits Dawn naked from memory. Bowker’s Emily exquisitely, with a kind of truth-telling Asperger’s, demolishes Alan’s paintings. It’s a masterclass in manicured crassness, the very trampling on humanity Emily accuses Blair of. And as for the cat, threatening guinea-pigs, there’s a different fate.
What’s so distinctive in Betts is misleading us into an almost farcical comedy that turns darker. Just as stereotypes settle, plots unravel them. First Emily’s rant now includes the armed forces, and we learn Dawn’s son Sean’s in Afghanistan, egged on to join by Alan. The second act turns Oliver from the put-upon wimp into someone more authoritative, through several extraordinary acts. No sooner than the fate of the cat’s announced Emily, spurred on by the first drink in years becomes comically wildly enamoured – the mildly terrifying Emily Bowker almost dominates the stage to this point – then remorseful. She has to have the couple over. A curious dumb show between Oliver and Dawn becomes clearer though not via the ensuing Ayckbournesque confusion. Confession’s not at all what Emily thinks it might be; she never hears what the others discuss.
As this play becomes Dawn’s and Alan’s we see ideology trounced by the real lives Emily’s never connected with. It’s as if like Adela Quested wanting to se the ‘Real’ India she’s learned nothing. In a series of duets generous to both couples and combinations it’s Oliver, who’s been quietly ‘real’ in a way Emily doesn’t yet guess, who emerges with a ruthless inheritance and makes a decision. Whatley impresses with bulking out his frame in a kind of transformation; suddenly he’s commanding, imperious even in tone. Paradoxically Emily’s drawn by this.
But it’s no longer their play. The climax is devastating, not explosively but in revelatory shudders. Boag and Brookes rise to something like tragic intensity in these final moments. A fine unexpectedness marks both this superb play and outstandingly-acted revival. Blink and it’s as vanished as Oliver and Emily.