Invincible at The Orange Tree, Richmond, TW9
Kate Bassett , Times
This new dark comedy deserves a West End transfer.
If you liked Abigail’s Party, you’ll almost certainly relish Torben Betts’s astute new play, although the class frictions in Mike Leigh’s Seventies classic and this contemporary, darkening comedy are configured quite differently.
Emily and Oliver are a well-educated, middle-class couple knocked sideways by the post-2008 recession. He has lost his job, so they’ve decamped from London to a town in the more affordable north of England. Unhappy and exercised by the state of the nation, she fumes about profiteering bankers and about Britain’s mainstream politicians having sold out morally. While harping on the need for Tony Benn-style socialism to be rekindled, ironically she proves dire at socialising when she invites the working-class husband and wife from next door to come round for preprandial nibbles.
In this strongly cast four-hander which, directed by Ellie Jones, is both highly entertaining and tense, Laura Howard’s Emily takes umbrage when Daniel Copeland’s rotund Alan rolls up casually late, swigging a can of lager. She thoroughly fails to appreciate his motor-mouthed, enthusiastic spiel about the England match that he’s just been watching on the telly. In turn, he doesn’t appreciate her opining about how popular sports, such as football, are a means of keeping people pacified and stupid. She goes on to be bruisingly honest about his talents as an amateur painter and touches a nerve questioning the patriotic pride that he and his wife, Dawn, share, particularly regarding British troops abroad.
Betts has, one senses, consciously striven to be balanced in depicting his characters’ divergent values but, in the process, he has actually rather undermined Emily’s left-wing concerns with which he himself (to judge from his programme note at least) substantially sympathises. He portrays her as neurotically remorseless in her rants about Tony Blair’s warmongering, inaction on climate change, private schools and more.
Mostly, though, this is a vibrant combination of a play of ideas and a comedy of bad manners. Even if Betts is palpably indebted to Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn (an early mentor), the couples’ misunderstandings become startlingly raw. Darren Strange’s floundering, conciliatory Oliver is hilarious then shifty, and Samantha Seager’s tarty Dawn plumbs unexpected emotional depths. Invincible is a feather in the cap for Sam Walters, the UK’s longest-standing artistic director, and it could well transfer to the West End from his farewell season at the Orange Tree.
Box office: 020-8940 3633, to Apr 12