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Invincible

Torben Betts
Original Theatre Company
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Emily Bowker (Emily), Graeme Brookes (Alan), Elizabeth Boag (Dawn) and Alastair Whatley (Oliver) Credit: Jack Ladenburg
Emily Bowker (Emily), Elizabeth Boag (Dawn) and Graeme Brookes (Alan) Credit: Jack Ladenburg
Alastair Whatley (Oliver) and Emily Bowker (Emily) Credit: Jack Ladenburg

In his 1941 essay "England Your England", George Orwell described his homeland as the most class-conscious country in the world. For him, it was a “land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly”.

This peculiar fixation on status and social hierarchy is a prevalent theme in many of England's greatest comedies from the madcap farce of Fawlty Towers (1975) to the suburban satire of Abigail's Party (1977). It is also a prominent feature of Torben Betts's Invincible, which has been revived by Original Theatre Company after a successful tour last year.

Hit hard by the recession, middle-class couple Emily (Emily Bowker) and Oliver (Alastair Whatley) leave their middle-class London lifestyle behind and relocate to a small town in the north of England. In an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their new neighbours, they invite over local couple Alan (Graeme Brookes) and Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) for an evening of non-alcoholic drinks and nibbles.

Playwright Torben Betts claims not to be a fan of Abigail's Party, but there are striking parallels between his play and Mike Leigh's classic tragicomedy of manners. Crucially, both plays centre upon excruciatingly awkward social gatherings where the characters' class differences result in misunderstandings and embarrassment.

I found the first half of the play rather broad for my taste, with all four characters presented as class stereotypes. Although Betts makes some acerbic observations about class differences and middle-class pretension, some of his devices—such as the characters’ discussion of modern art—struck me as being rather hackneyed.

That said, the play becomes far more interesting in the second half, where revelations about the characters’ marriages bubble to the surface. At this stage, Betts’s writing becomes much darker and the plot more unpredictable.

The play is brought to life by four fine actors. Alastair Whatley gives an understated performance as clever-clogs Oliver, slowly gaining in assertiveness throughout the course of the production. In the first half, Emily Bowker is the epitome of the left-leaning virago, and in the second, she deftly conveys the character’s inner pain. Ultimately, her performance is very heartfelt and moving. Equally impressive is Elizabeth Boag, who skilfully conveys Dawn’s frustration with her marriage.

The show is dominated, however, by Graeme Brookes as Alan, the football-obsessed postman. He delivers a bold, larger-than-life performance without succumbing to caricature, and brings real pathos to the role.

While I did not laugh as often as I’d have liked, the audience around me was in hysterics for most of the production’s running time. Invincible is a likeable, fitfully amusing comedy that makes some perceptive observations about the English class system.

Reviewer: James Ballands