In Torben Betts’ play Invincible, presented by The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions at 59E59 Theaters, a London couple named Oliver and Emily move to Northern England and experience culture shock. Specifically, they invite their neighbors, Alan and Dawn, over for a visit one evening and find that they have no mutual ground. Oliver and Emily are quintessential sophisticates, unmarried, progressive, slender, refined. Alan and Dawn are boors. She dresses like a streetwalker and speaks a dialect using “were” for “was”. He’s an overgrown baby. His beer belly shows under his T-shirt and he has a loud, stupid laugh.
Emily paints abstracts. Alan paints childish pictures of his cat, Invincible, brutally bad. The four neighbors manage to slug their way through conversation until Alan produces his paintings and Emily gives her candid opinion. This somehow gets tied into the couples’ contrasting attitudes toward the military, and the evening is a disaster.
The main dissonance lies between Emily and Alan. They’re both obnoxious. Emily spouts clichés about big business and socialized housing and Alan laughs like an idiot. Neither has interpersonal skills, and they don’t process what people say to them.
At its best, the script has the disingenuous veneer of a play by Alan Ayckbourn. The flaw in the first act is that the friction between the two couples doesn’t proceed by degrees. They tolerate each other until Emily tells Alan he’s untalented, and then, nearly at the end of the act, the social disaster occurs.
The second act takes place some time later – it’s not clear how much later, but Alan and Dawn’s cat has been missing “almost a week”. The writing is more sophisticated in this act. There’s been some dramatic action between acts and there are some revelations about the past. The characters gain some complexity. We feel some sympathy for Emily when she says “I don’t care about being happy any more. I just want to be at peace.” And at the end of the play we learn that there’s more to Alan than a suburban slug. Indeed, we end up liking him more than we like Oliver, who’s easier for us to relate to. Mr. Betts succeeds to some extent in making a point about our own class prejudice.
Stephen Darcy directs the play, although the program tells us that the “original direction” is from Christopher Harper. He directs it for its comedy, keeps it moving and keeps us entertained. But he directs unevenly. At opening, Oliver and Emily are having a bit of a tiff, and she’s in a frenzy, nearly out of control (we dislike her a lot). However, she inexplicably calms down when her guests arrive. And the characters almost never sit down while they’re socializing in a living room. People don’t behave like this.
Alan is played as a cartoon in the first act. The entire first act, in fact, is heavy-handed. Alan and Dawn make entrances bombastically, to cheap music. It’s deliberately non-realistic, in the stylistic sense, and it’s a mistake.
There’s a conversation in the second act that conflates sex with Invincible, the cat. Mr. Darcy actually has Emily, who has no idea of the salacious overtones of the conversation, fall on her knees in a suggestive position before Alan, who grabs his groin and retreats upstage. Emily, apparently, is quite thick, but nobody’s that thick.
Mr. Darcy sometimes has Oliver and Emily talk over one another, not listening to each other. This is apparently what the playwright intended, since the lines don’t reflect any development in the conversation. It goes on too long.
All four of the actors are obviously of the highest skill set, but they find themselves constrained. The role of Emily is played by Emily Bowker, and role of Alan is played by Graeme Brookes. Both lay it on rather too thick because, I suspect, they’ve been directed to do so. Elizabeth Boag plays the low-class Dawn with a bit more dimension.
Only Alastair Whatley, as Oliver, the London editor who’s out of a job, has the opportunity to act with subtlety. It’s the most interesting role. Oliver is silent at crucial moments when we expect him to speak.
Victoria Spearing’s set, Oliver and Emily’s living room, has dark walls and white doors and furniture. It’s tasteless, out of keeping with the refinement of the house’s occupants.
Invincible is presented as part of 5E59’s Brits on Broadway series.