There was a touching moment of spontaneity at the opening night of Torben Betts’ new play Invincible at the wonderful Orange Tree in Richmond. As the actors argue over the changing face of the Labour Party, the late Tony Benn was inevitably mentioned (he passed away earlier that day) resulting in a sort of collective sense of loss that suddenly filled the theatre. Benn’s beliefs and principles are certainly present in Betts’ intelligent dissection of social class, relationships and loss in contemporary Britain.
The action opens on Emily (Laura Howard) and Oliver (Darren Strange) – a middle-class couple who have just moved to the North of England for financial reasons – tidying their living room in preparation for the arrival of their neighbours Dawn (Samantha Seager) and Alan (Daniel Copeland) – a working-class couple with two daughters, a son in the army and a cat called Vince (after the HMS Invincible, the ship on which Alan served) who meets a sticky end.
There are some blazing differences between the couples, with Emily and Oliver being olives and anchovies whilst Dawn and Alan are more footy and cans. What becomes overly apparent, however, is the aching loneliness that consumes each character. They discuss politics, philosophy, economics, patriotism, art, family and much more, but what shines through is unhappiness and a longing for something more.
Ellie Jones’ thoughtful direction draws out the many levels of Betts’ intricate script, with hard-hitting elements played against more surreal interjections and farcical moments to create a clever blend of poignancy and humour.
Even though Betts is perhaps too ambitious at times, there is no denying that Invincible is a finely-written piece. There’s a great deal of content crammed into the 2 hours and 20 minutes, yet it never feels laboured or forced. Instead it raises many pertinent questions surrounding wealth, education and foreign policy as well as a more general feeling of confusion due to the economic downturn of 2008.
Importantly, Betts captures the flow of conversation perfectly, which, combined with Sam Dowson’s fantastic design, gives the production an intensely realistic quality. Furthermore, the cast is nothing short of fantastic. They approach their characters with truth and dexterity resulting in highly-believable performances that are as heart-wrenching as they are hilarious. The in-the-round nature of the production feels as if we are a fly on the wall, scrutinising each action allowing us to be swept along on this emotional rollercoaster.
Each character brings something new to the fore allowing Betts to show us the hypocrisies evident in British society today. Radical left-winger Emily is fiercely anti-Capitalist yet owns an iPod. She is an ardent feminist yet follows Buddhism, where certain beliefs around Nirvana are overtly sexist. Furthermore, she argues her disdain for the State and claims, “I am sympathetic towards the oppressed,” when talking about Catholic oppression in the seventeenth century, yet fails to mention how the Catholic Church itself is one of the most oppressive institutions in the world!
The biggest contradiction in Emily, however, is her attitude towards Alan and Dawn. A self-professed lover of the people, she fails to exercise this belief with her neighbours. Frankly, she’s a snob who is quick to judge the uneducated and patriotic.
By contrast, Alan is a relatively straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, guy. He loves his country almost as much as he loves his cat and he has an endearing tenderness and vulnerability that is impossible to resist – like John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. His wife Dawn longs for the return of her son from Afghanistan, whilst Emily’s partner Oliver longs to return back to his comfortable life in London.
Invincible is a powerful, intimate piece that showcases the talents of each and every individual involved in the production. A must-see!