Ted Whitehead’s Alpha Beta is an intense and visceral play about an irretrievably damaged couple locked in a loveless marriage. Reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing in its pessimistic view of the institution of marriage it is as depressing as it sounds, but also oddly refreshing. By focusing on the darkest outcomes a marital relationship can produce it has the edge on the thousands of books, films and plays that hold up marriage as the ultimate ideal.
Last performed in 1972 this is the first production for 40 years. The Finborough Theatre has a knack for perfectly timed revivals which reveal that the experiences of their characters and the issues they raise are just as pertinent now as at the time of writing. With Alpha Beta the story of Mr and Mrs Elliot is brought up to date in Verity Quinn’s innovative set, which encompasses the entire space available, the theatre transformed into a chic modern apartment.
As the play opens Mrs Elliot (Tracy Ifeachor) is vigorously painting the walls white as Mr Elliot (Christian Roe) enters. At first Roe is sardonic and Ifeachor is icy but before long their resentful, barbed conversation erupts into a full blown screaming row. Neither character can be said to be blameless as Mr Eliot is cruel and selfish whilst Mrs Eliot vindictive and manipulative. Mr Eliot longs for escape so he can ‘ fuck a thousand women’ whilst Mrs Eliot, in a Medea inspired episode, eventually resorts to threatening to kill herself and the children to gain his attention.
Although the set, costumes, props and personae are brought up to date, none of the original script has been changed. Very occasionally references jar with the surroundings, particularly when Mrs Eliot brings out a housekeeping book referring to ‘4 pounds and 3 shillings’. In this production Mr and Mrs Eliot are types whose tragedy could be played out in a thousand living rooms irrespective of time period, social class or even race.
Roe and Ifeachor respond to this challenge with studied energy, Ifeachor particularly achieving silent rage, creating a tension that adds emotive power to her angry outbursts when she does finally lose control. Both actors detach themselves from a highly stylised script to help the dialogue flow, using natural body language and everyday tasks such as ironing to fill the gaps left between the period specific narrative and this production’s contemporary twist. The domesticity of their surroundings becomes a bleak reminder of the state of their relationship, each scene ending with the need to clean or replace objects that have been caught up in their conflict.
The tragedy of the story is not just that Mr and Mrs Eliot are unhappy, it is that they are locked into a self -created cycle of behaviour from which they are powerless to break free. The audience leave with no hope that either character will change and as they head to the bar for a much needed pick me up many will surely be thinking ‘I hope that never happens to me’.