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INVINCIBLE – Touring

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★★★★
Touring
Reviewed at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

THE STATE OF ENGLAND:  FUNNY, BEAUTIFUL, SAD AND TOURING! 

Some issues do best as satirical or farcical comedies: English class division, illicit sex, misunderstanding. Others sit less easily with the comic muse: cot death, grief, young lives wasted in war. Torben Betts, in this terrific play, is comfortable handling both, and does so with almost total success. It ran briefly in multi-ethnic, diverse East London: but with this new touring cast will be able to show a wider Britain to itself: at first teasingly, but then with an admirable sad seriousness.

For Oliver and Emma are parlour-leftie southerners with small children who have moved up North to save money and (especially in her case) to fulfil a self-righteous fantasy about living among “real people”. But the real people next door are the vampy Dawn (Kerry Bennett) and Alan (Graeme Brookes). Alan is an immense man-mountain in an England shirt, so untutored in middle-class ways that when they are invited round he sends his wife first, while he finishes watching the England match. He then turns up with a monologue of post-match analysis while the hosts stand speechless.

So far, so funny. Oliver – a redundant MoD civil servant with at least some grasp of practical reality. – attempts gauche friendliness. But Emily Bowker as Emma is a living nightmare in her self-designed asymmetric-chic outfits, pretentious abstract artworks and serene yogic poses. Her meditation and left-of-Corbyn love of the People does not stop her hissing disapproval at Dawn’s tight red dress, or delivering blistering condemnation of Alan’s clumsy paintings of his cat, Vince – Invincible (named after the aircraft carrier on which he was a cook).

We get a hint in the first act that Emily is in some sort of grief, from four years previously; but bravely, Betts does not allow her to solicit sympathy for a long time yet. She can’t even bear the St George’s flags on the houses outside in a World Cup year defacing “A beautiful street of 19c stone houses…I AM sympathetic, Oliver, towards the oppressed, but mindless patriotism!” . She is also “trying to move beyond sex”. Dawn, sensibly, isn’t.
The postman Alan , though, rapidly becomes one of the most beautiful characters of recent theatre. Boasting to Oliver about his wife’s hotness he says that when he first saw her naked he wept: the supposedly new-man southerner can’t quite take that. And when Alan talks of and shows his paintings – which are splendidly terrible – Emma’s vicious demolition of his work as she prates about how art should “reunify body and soul” and so forth, is torpedoed by his shy “when I paint I don’t feel so lonely”. Merit or no merit, he’s an artist and she’s a pretender. But he still cuts up his paintings, embarrassed. Brookes’ performance is splendid, nuanced, genuine: my only suggestion (and it was a preview at Bury I saw) is for director Christopher Harper to suggest he does a bit less of the maddening laugh in the first scenes. Conveying annoyingness without annoying the audience as well is a tricky ask.

 

 

The fate of Alan’s beloved cat becomes both comic and profoundly sad; in the second half, with good twists, we learn more about him and Dawn , about Oliver’s underlying nature (a lovely cynical concluion here) ; we may respect, to a reasonable degree, nasty Emma’s reason for sorrow. And as a portrait of flawed people in a Britain divided by class and also at war – there’s a painfully sharp line from Dawn about soldiers, which I won’t spoil – it becomes genuinely beautiful as well as sharply perceptive . Honour to Original Theatre and to Theatre Royal Bury, the producers. It’s a good long tour, into June. Catch!

 

tour dates on http://tinyurl.com/zxx76eg
rating four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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