By ‘eck it’s grim up north for southerners looking to live among “real people” to experience genuine community spirit.
It’s not all cloth caps and ferrets but for left-wing Londoners Oliver and Emily it is a different planet – and one they don’t recognise from reading Karl Marx.
Torben Betts has learned from the feet of a master. His latest play, Invincible, which opened last night at St James Theatre, owes a lot to the style of Alan Ayckbourn to whom he was briefly indentured as a writer in residence.
Superficially it’s a jolly comedy about a pair of fish out of water – but it soon becomes clear that the four protagonists are far from invincible – they’re deeply vulnerable and hurting.
Our first encounters with Emily (Laura Howard) leave you shell shocked. She’s monstrous. How can Oliver bear living with her?
She’s neurotic, depressed and so consumed with political idealism (plus a smattering of Buddhism to help her chill) that she doesn’t have time for her husband (or sex).
Every conversation is explosive as she rails against the state of the nation. “I’m not highly strung!” screams a highly strung Emily. Actually that’s the least of her problems.
The pair have relocated to cheaper climes in “the north” after civil servant Oliver (Darren Strange) lost his job.
Emily makes her own clothes, is an artist (hmm, the jury’s out on that one) and hopes to open both an artists’ co-operative and Amnesty action group.
Oliver is at a loose end.
They invite the neighbours around, to do their bit to integrate, and the scene is about as awkward as it can get.
There’s a lot of standing about, uncomfortable silences, banal conversations. Oliver offers olives and salted cashews. The differences between north and south are never more obvious.
First to arrive is Dawn (Samantha Seager), all fake tan, neon, barely-there dress (with black thong), vertiginous heels and too much make-up.
Her other half, Alan (Daniel Copeland), a postman, arrives when the footie’s finished on TV.
Alan, an astute pundit on the state of the England team, is a talker – but, as it turns out, not a great listener.
It’s an uncomfortable evening for all concerned which comes to an abrupt end when Emily passes judgement on Alan’s amateur paintings.
But you’d be wrong to pass judgement too soon. Emily is haunted and consumed with guilt; Oliver feels helpless.
In the other camp the outwardly chirpy Dawn is plagued with nightmares about her young son fighting in Afghanistan while Alan is similarly incapable of offering any moral support.
Invincible has transferred from Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre to the off west-end venue in Victoria.
It clearly finds a sympathetic southern audience which heartily clapped and whooped when Oliver and Emily eventually condemn both Tony Blair and “The North” pretty much in the same breath.
Invincible is a beautifully crafted multi-layered comedy that is thought-provoking and wonderfully entertaining.
And, after an evening in the company of both Emily and Dawn, I have the utmost respect for both of them. Remarkable women, skilfully portrayed by Howard and Seager.
Invincible runs at St James Theatre until August 9.