The north/south divide is wafer thin in Torben Betts penetrating culture clash comedy Invincible which is now touring the UK after scoring a hit at two London theatres.
The two couples at the heart of this funny, awkward and moving play, may come from either side of the cultural divide but they’re umbilically joined by more than they know. Scratch under the surface and there’s a mother’s yearning for a lost son and a father’s desperation for respect and self-esteem.
Invincible started life at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, before winning acclaim and transferring to St James Theatre, in Central London. Now it is on its first national tour, this week Hull Truck Theatre, and is even going overseas with productions to Spain, Argentina, Poland and the Czech Republic.
I caught it on Saturday in the Tory heartland of Guildford where a near sold-out audience at the Yvonne Arnaud put aside their political differences to embrace this sharply observed bittersweet comedy about class and economic prejudice.
Betts, who worked at one time for Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough, has learned a lot from his former master and this piece is structured very much along the lines of an Ayckbourn play. The first act lulls you into a false sense of security, with obvious laughter lines, but the comedy becomes darker in the second act and its characters reveal themselves to be flawed, damaged and battered by life.
This four-hander opens with Oliver and Emily hurriedly tidyng up. They’ve invited the next door neighbours around in a bid to make friends.
The smart London couple (Guardian readers from Islington, I’d say) has moved “up north” to downsize and find a better quality life – let’s be honest here – a cheaper way of life – after civil servant Oliver lost his job.
“We wanted to live among real people..” Oliver tries clumsily to explain.
They have a two year old girl but Emily is still mourning the death of their first baby, Alfie, who passed away while the parents were drunk.
Emily, consumed by guilt, now fills her life with important matters. Replacing laughter and frivolity is Karl Marx, Communism, eradicating world hunger, war, government strategy and sobriety. She flagellates herself by taking on the sins of the human race to try and erase the memory of that dreadful night.
Oliver just wants to move on with their lives.
She puts out olives and salted cashews and awaits their guests. Dawn is the first to arrive because her postie hubby, Alan, is watching England lose on the TV. Fake tan, brassy make-up and squeezed into a bodycon dress, she is the antithesis of her unpainted hostess in her ethnically sourced linen frock.
“She’s hardly wearing any clothes!” says Emily appalled.
The conversation is awkward and hesitant and only gets worse. Emily, tense, earnest, wrings her hands and doesn’t know what to say. What is there to say to these common people?
Alan’s arrival doesn’t improve things. He’s brought his own beer, which they drink out of cans (Emily’s horrified). He gabbles about England’s poor performance, his beloved cat Vince (named after HMS Invincible) which Emily loathes because it threatens their guinea pigs and poos in the garden, and his hobby, painting.
Outwardly the two couples couldn’t be more different. Tensions rise when the ever honest Emily expresses an opinion about Alan’s art and then condemns Britain’s role in Afghanistan – not knowing that Dawn’s 20-year-old son is serving in the army.
Betts’ perceptive dialogue bristles with dark humour. Poor Oliver (Alastair Whatley beautifully puppyish as a lily-livered southerner who prefers cricket to footie) is caught in the crossfire between his wife’s glares and Dawn’s obvious sexuality.
“I wasn’t ogling. I’m not an ogler!” He pleads as his wife gives him what for (to be fair, Kerry Bennett does look pretty stunning. She later astonishes with a raw, powerfully acted scene, that brings a lump to your throat).
Emily Bowker gives a strong and emotive performance as the grief-stricken Emily. You feel her pain and forgive the pretensions, you even forgive her sermonising.
Alan (Graeme Brookes right on the game) may look like a typical northern beer-swilling slob but he’s not without his emotional side – he just keeps it well hidden under a veneer of bonhomie. The few moments that he lets his guard down are incredibly moving, albeit fleeting.
2016 Tour Dates
April 12-14, Hull Truck Theatre April 19-23, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich April 26-27, South Hill Park, Bracknell April 28-30, Mercury Theatre, Colchester May 2-4, Gala Theatre, Durham May 6-7, Stamford Arts Centre May 10-14, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne May 17-21, Birmingham Repertory Theatre May 23-24, Theatre Royal Winchester May 26-28, Key Theatre, Peterborough June 7-11, Exeter Northcott Theatre June 14-18, Festival Theatre, Malvern.
Funny, sharply observed. Torben Betts’ dark culture-clash comedy, Invincible, reveals that the north/south divide is wafer thin.