Coming hot on the tails of successes for both author and company, Torben Betts’s Invincible is an deliciously excruciating yet profound exploration of Britain’s endless obsession with the class system.
So, Torben Betts round two and Original Theatre Company round two. After their respective successes last month with Get Carter and Flare Path, expectations were good for Invincible. As well as the recent performance of both writer and company, I’d heard a lot of good things about this play with its original run at the Orange Tree Theatre, on the subject of what many of us call Guardian-columnist socialism – that is, well-off people who think they’re all pro-working class but are pretty clueless about what the real working class are like. So it all looked rather promising to see a play about a London couple who are forced to move ‘oop north the slums of Newcastle-upon-Yorkshire where Thatcher closed the steel mines and they’ve never heard of cricket. So when we saw preparations for a visit from the neighbours and the works of Karl Marx are laid out on the table, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Torben Betts isn’t the only playwright to be writing about this sort of culture clash; John Godber did an interesting job with Poles Apart last year, where a pro-working class actress and theatre manager got a rude awakening when bona fide working class scaffolders pay a visit. Godber’s play, however, was a subtle culture clash – Betts instead goes for a blatant and deliciously excruciating culture clash. Emily and Oliver begin preparing for a party with the kind of anxiety that only the wealthy middle class care about. Quite a lot of signs that Emily wears the trousers in this marriage, except that they’re not married because everyone knows that’s a patriarchal ploy to oppress women and Oliver is keen to express his non-sexist credentials by allowing his partner to make all the decisions. First to arrive is trashy Dawn, who seemingly has a thing for silver-spooned gentlemen; but before things get too out of hand on that front, in comes overweight husband Alan, whittering on about the football oblivious to the fact no-one else cares. But don’t worry, Emily helpfully explains to Alan that football is merely a ploy to suppress the working class from revolution because they’re so easily brainwashed. And that sets the tone of pretty much the whole party.
For a while, I was worried that the four characters were overly reliant on crude class stereotypes. But that’s only a superficial impression; there’s a lot more to the characters once you get deeper. Alan and Dawn may seem like apathetic slobs, but with Alan a former chef on HMS Invicible and Dawn’s first child in service now, they passionately believe in their country’s soldiers, much to Emily’s horror. It is Emily, though, who has the most to hide. Her persona as a self-righteous leftie busy-body is actually a very deep cover for a different Emily, one who it seems used to enjoy life before a tragedy drove her to devote herself to the betterment of the world.
Torben Betts makes a understated but poignant point about the class system. For all the uselessness of Emily and Oliver as role models, for all the ire they rub up Alan and Dawn, the class hierarchy still finds a way to win. When Emily tactlessly rubbishes Alan’s woeful cat paintings, and Dawn hits back over Emily’s pretentious bullshit splatter paintings. But Emily can sell her paintings for a thousand pounds, and that’s enough to convince Alan his own efforts are worthless and destroy everything he created. Moreover, if you look past Alan’s mix-up of Karl Marx and the Marx Brothers, there’s signs Alan may actually be very knowledgeable on the old black and white comedians. In Islington he might have welcomed as a film buff – but he’s not in Islington, and his hints of culture are ignored.
The final thing that stuck me was that Torben Betts’s own political views are quite easy to work out if you go through his Twitter feed, and I’ve said before that the otherwise good What Falls Apart was let down by soapbox overkill. In Invicible, however, he is far more disciplined, and with all the heated political arguments that blow up over the play, there are scarcely any clues over which views are the author’s own. The only slight let-down I felt was with the ending. Perhaps it was a point Torben Betts felt had to be made, perhaps he simply felt it was the natural progression of the story, but the twist at the end has been done to death in countless plays, and was easily guessable. But that’s just a small criticism of a play that lived to up to already high expectations.
Original Theatre and director Christopher Harper again did what they needed to do, and the reason I’ve gone on so much about the writing is that the production values were so good you don’t notice it. One thing of note is that although this isn’t the first performance of the play, it is the first major production to have been produced for the end-stage (the Orange Tree production, of course, having been done in the round). That can trip a production up, because an end-stage set tends to make a scenic statement whether you want one or not, but they got the balance right – dropping hints that it’s a house in redevelopment but not overly distracting from the story. So it’s a hat trick for Original Theatre if you count Birdsong. Torben Betts’s next play is The National Joke at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. We’ll see shortly if Betts can make it a hat trick too.