Monday, March 24, 2014

"Invincible" at the "Orange Tree Theatre", Richmond. Relationships are difficult!

Torben Betts dark comedy "Invincible" at the Orange Tree  Theatre Richmond is in the fine tradition of modern British theatre in its use of High Comedy and a claustrophobic setting to explore some heavy contemporary issues. We are confined to the living room of a house somewhere in the North  of England in the present day. Here Oliver and Emily have moved from the South to try and live more cheaply after getting into financial difficulties. She is a strident Socialist Workers Party type who slips effortlessly into "Rant" mode and who is forcing a rather austere lifestyle on her wooly liberal partner - a lifestyle which to his distress has moved beyond alcohol and sex! Their neighbours are Alan and Dawn, a solidly working class couple who live still in the same road where they grew up as children. Alan is a lager-swilling, fat England football fan. Dawn a well-preserved if somewhat "tarty" 30 something. Cue a portrayal of social differences - of class, region, education, art appreciation, politics, attitudes and lifestyle.

Emily is a painter - of bright but rather disturbing abstracts. She thinks that she is good and has plans to found an artists cooperative. Alan is a painter as well - of naive and not awfully good portraits of his cat Vince. There is an excruciating scene where Emily offers her honest and very derogatory opinions on Alan's "Art" - here the paintings are a metaphor for the class and all the other differences. Emily is unkind because she believes that she must always be truthful. The gauche and proletarian Alan and Dawn would have better manners than to do this!

Both couples have tensions. For Oliver and Emily these are based on political differences, for Alan and Dawn it is more frustration - of all sorts. Dawn regrets her lack of education, Alan is trying to show he has hidden talents by painting and going to art classes. The root cause of Oliver and Emily's sadness, seriousness and lack of fun in their lives turns out to be the loss of a child in a cot death many years earlier. Alan and Dawn have a son serving in Afghanistan in the Army - something that combines pride and fear for them. The horrors of war are explored clearly with Emily ranting about the awfulness of Tony Blair's wars being challenged by a conventional, but understandable, "All Soldiers are heroes" polemic from Alan. The gap between speaking from the gut (an ample one in Alan's case) and speaking from intellect (Emily) is shown here.

The comedy is strong at times and the audience responds. The "Orange Tree" is a tiny theatre and you are drawn tightly into the action. This also means that you engage with each of the characters and feel you know them. As the evening progresses there are changes in the relationships and circumstances of each character and the balance of power that existed at the beginning is altered by the end. In this respect there is an Alan Ayckbourn feel to the play - all is never quite what it seems and the message gradually emerges from events and how they respond to them. This is not an improvised play but there are also echoes of Mike Leigh where, in Abigail's Party especially, he explored similiar themes. My conclusion was that the differences apparent from the start are both unbridgeable but paradoxically  not that great. Relationships are difficult and where there is a reasonable balance of power  in them (Alan and Dawn) there is less need for coping than when one of the partners is dominant (Emily). You will need to watch the play to see which of the two couples is more together at the end, and why it happened! It's very thought provoking! The cast is outstanding, the direction tight and the setting and staging original and clever. 


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