Sometimes it’s good to see a play with absolutely no-preconceptions as to what it’s all about. All I knew about Invincible is that it was Ayckbournian in style without being by Ayckbourn – which worried me slightly as Ayckbourn is a class apart and I hoped this wouldn’t be a pale imitation. All my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind knew about it was that it was set in a flat share. WRONG! I had assumed it would have nothing to do with Swedish singer Carola who performed the song Invincible at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. In that respect, I was spot on. No, the “invincible” of the title refers to something quite different, and there’s a huge sigh of recognition in the audience when they finally get the reference.
Two rather unhappy couples are forced to be neighbours when the ineffectual Oliver, his patronisingly Marxist partner Emily and their cosseted children are forced to upsticks from London and move up north as a result of their inappropriately low income. They live next door to footie mad Alan, his bored but alluring wife Dawn, their (unexpectedly charming) children and their cat, who has greater significance than cats normally do. A “break the ice” get-together round at Oliver and Em’s for olives and cashews slowly deteriorates into the evening from hell as social and class differences divide the two couples, even though Oliver’s willing to give it a try and Alan is more of a Renaissance Man than you might have imagined. As the Act One curtain falls on Oliver and Emily resolute in the face of adversity to the stoic strains of Jerusalem, you wonder where this can go for the second act. However, carry on it does, as lives are further changed, relationships damaged, and health suffers; but there’s much more to it than that, and a lot of the power of this play comes from its unexpected twists in the plot so I’m not saying any more. No sirree.
Suffice to say that at the end, one couple are able to escape to safer ground, leaving the others to cope with the mess that surrounds them. You couldn’t really call it a happy ending in all fairness – which leads me on to the comparison with Ayckbourn. Not hard to see why people have compared the two, as events of personal tragedy run alongside outwardly comic situations and you laugh (but not through cruelty) as everything a character holds dear crumbles all about them. There’s an extended scene where the four characters are all talking at cross purposes which creates some magnificent laugh out loud moments; but all the way through I found myself guffawing at regular intervals. There’s a lot of sadness in this play, but the humour is absolutely terrific, and many’s the time when the actor has to wait for the laughs to die down before they can carry on with the text.
Maybe the gaps between the comic and the tragic are not quite so seamless as in Ayckbourn at his best, as Torben Betts, the writer, sometimes confronts you with moments of real tragedy without anything comic going on to alleviate the pain. Enough about comparisons; they are odious, and Mr Betts has written a fine play that gives you deep insight into these peoples’ lives. The characterisations are as strong as you could wish. I really felt as though I am personally acquainted with at least two of the characters in the show: the know-it-all joy vampire, who denies happiness because the socialist way forward isn’t funny; and the slobby, soccer-obsessed lager lout who invades your personal space and bores you with endless pointless observations but deep down has a heart of gold.
Where this play excels is when it shows you these characters’ vulnerable private sides as well as their public personas; the Marxist’s longing to love and be loved, the slob’s aspirations to artistic excellence. The play constantly challenges our stereotypical preconceptions of what these people and their wider families are like – indeed Tuesday night’s spellbound audience could barely hold back on a running commentary about the plot and the characters; that sounds tedious, but actually it was quite charming. If one thing really comes through from watching this play – especially in the first act – is how everyone is talking to each other but nobody is listening. The characters are fully prepared to talk everyone else down with their own agenda but never prepared to consider anyone else’s. Apart, perhaps, from Dawn, who has less to say for herself anyway, and is more curious about attracting the love-deprived Oliver. Keeping open the proper channels of communication is vital for a successful relationship, and that includes discussing those difficult topics most people shy away from. Plenty to talk about on the way home, then.
It’s a smart little production with a no-nonsense but perfectly suitable set by Victoria Spearing and snappy, unsentimental direction from Stephen Darcy. It’s produced by the Original Theatre Company who gave us their Flare Path at Oxford last February, but this strikes me as a much more confident production. What really gives it its strength and charisma is the cast of four who knock spots off the script as they engage with the characters and the audience with a really likeable and honest delivery. Alastair Whatley plays Oliver with superb self-control, neglecting his own desires for the good of the household and because he genuinely loves Emily, although she doesn’t reciprocate much. Totally alien in his new environment, he seeks to assert himself as best he can – which in some ways doesn’t go as far as it should – and in others goes way too far. Emily Bowker’s Emily is a teeth-jarringly accurate representation of a neurotic, condescending mess, who conceals any sense of reality beneath a mask of communist dogma. Her refusal to politely lie, when it would have been far more socially acceptable and far less hurtful than telling the truth, is agonisingly realistic. When she finally lets her hair down, you see the real character lurking beneath, and Ms Bowker’s portrayal of a woman more damaged by the past than she can express is very moving.
Next door, Graeme Brookes’ Alan is the complete opposite of his uptight neighbours, with his perfect Man At Sports Direct look, the belly that insists on protruding no matter how many times he pulls his shirt down, the loud and potentially menacing voice that usually (but not always) hides his inner self-esteem issues, and his unexpected ability to reveal his private emotions in a way men like that are Simply Not Meant To. It’s a fantastic performance, and Mr Brookes revels in all his opportunities to play the noisy oaf, to the delight of the audience, whilst still remaining absolutely faithful to the character. Elizabeth Boag, whom we really loved in Ayckbourn’s Arrivals and Departures three years ago, makes a stunning first appearance as the overlooked Dawn, a true Jessica Rabbit to Mr Brookes’ Homer Simpson, and you really do wonder (as does he) how it was that she ever fell for him in the first place. Ms Boag creates an excellent sense of aloofness from where she can observe the other characters and quickly size them up – especially Oliver, whose size she gauges quite quickly, if you get my drift. Dawn also does not escape from the harsh reality of life, and her final scene actually brought tears to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eyes (though not mine, obvs.)
I thought it was a terrific play, full of insight and understanding, showing the various ways people deal with sadness and grief; are they all invincible at the final curtain? You’ll have to see it to find out. These four stonking good performances will keep this touring production delighting its customers for weeks to come. After Northampton, you can catch it at Derby, Doncaster, Huddersfield, Scarborough, Cambridge, Southend, Harrogate, Lichfield, Brighton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. And you definitely should catch it!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan