By Mike Savill
It would be very easy (and irresponsibly lazy) to write off ‘Invincible’ as one of a number of ‘Abigail’s Party’ clones that has littered the theatrical landscape since that seminal play crept out of suburban Essex in 1977. Mismatched couples getting together for an evening of ‘polite’ conversation suffused with an undercurrent of social tension (and pretension), insightful commentary on the human condition, biting comedy undercut with powerful tragedy: the ingredients are all there. Torben Betts’ play, however, elevates itself to something far more than a sum of its parts and at the end of the evening I was firmly convinced that this is a piece of a very different colour.
At its heart are the couples – Emily and Oliver, recently moved to a small town in northern England, and their neighbours Alan and Dawn invited over for an evening of anchovies, olives and some desultory chat about abstract art, Karl Marx and England’s performance in the Cup! So far so Mike Leigh, and the first half is an effective (if possibly unwitting) homage to ‘Abigail’s Party’, a hilarious collision of cultures, beliefs and personalities, riffs on familiar subjects with laughter in abundance.
But as the end of the first act looms, the pattern begins to deviate and the seeds that have been sewn take the play in a very different direction leading to a second half that, though still filled with laughter – with one mistaken identity scene in particular proving a bitter-sweet masterstroke, leaves a shocking impact with the audience come curtain fall. This is a balance that is hard to get right, but I left the theatre assured of its achievements, through deft direction and a powerful ensemble cast.
Playing the recession-hit southerners trying to establish themselves ‘oop north’, Ruth Makepeace and Patrick Neylan made a simply marvellous middle class couple. Fresh from success playing Basil Fawlty in Edinburgh, Patrick channelled his energies in measured and modulated fashion, evoking a suitably genial soul who for the most part one was wholly sympathetic towards. Even with the revelation of his dark secret as the fate of Vince the cat is revealed I wasn’t swayed, such was the conviction of this characterisation!
The yin to his yang was perfectly embodied in Ruth’s Emily. The first time I have had opportunity to see her, I was wholly won over by her commanding performance. Every inch inhabiting the anti-capitalist, Blair-bashing new-ager that has become a wholly recognisable stereotype in contemporary culture, this role could easily have drifted into caricature but was deftly handled by an actor who could elicit laughs but who could equally evoke sympathy and, indeed, a few tears as her own personal tragedy is revealed and the depressing past of her character is exposed to us. The two worked well together, their conversations natural and interaction convincing which set them up nicely in juxtaposition to their counterparts next door.
Admirer as I am of Stevie Hughes’ work, I was initially a little disoriented seeing him in the role of Alan: this beer-swilling, boor-ish, football-loving lad-about-town was not typical of his repertoire and it took me a brief time for me to be convinced. I think this can sometimes be a foible amongst actors, that difficulty of throwing off one’s pre-conceptions, but once he had been established I was ‘there’ throughout and delighted in the humour that he brought to the part and, altogether more challengingly, wholly engaged with the pathos. The bittersweet scene deconstructing his paintings of Vince will remain with me for a long time to come. That said, I never quite reconciled myself with his belly.
Completing the quartet in the role of Dawn, Freya Finnerty was as assured and controlled as ever. Initially portraying the character with the relish that comes with a brassy bimbo type writ large, she revealed stirring and powerful depths as Dawn’s own tragedies are laid bare on stage, the key to driving the devastating climax on which the impact of the show hinges. With a conviction and emotional balance that left many of the audience visibly moved, this was another performance that stuck deep in the soul.
More punchy in its emotion than ‘Abigail’ then, and more politically aware and more questioning; with its references to Tonys Benn and Blair, socialism, Afghanistan and Karl Marx (the least funny of the Brothers), there is a political agenda for those who wished to grapple with it but more importantly there was human drama, comedy and tragedy steered with sensitivity and appreciation by Nikki Packham.
Appropriately set and atmospherically lit with some marvellous art by Jan Greenhough and Frankie and Poppy Jarvis, this was perfect bar show material in scale but would proudly have stood its ground on the main stage in its depth. Truly invincible!