It’s meet-the-neighbours for the second time in a row over at the Orange Tree, as Stephen Sewell’s domestic dystopia It Just Stopped is followed directly by Invincible, the latest play by Torben Betts (The Company Man, Muswell Hill). This time out the focus is on Emily and Oliver, middle-class Londoners (he’s henpecked and eager-to-please; she’s forever expressing pained liberal sentiments) who’ve relocated North to escape London’s economic pressures and “live our lives on a more human scale.” The pair invite their new neighbours, Alan and Dawn - hard-drinking Northerners - over for the evening. And so as the chat shifts from sport to schooling, from art to politics, the stage is set for a decidedly Mike Leigh-ish clash of classes, cultures and personality types and an attempt to draw from the couples’ interactions a wider portrait of what’s gone awry at the moment in this green and pleasant land.
While offering scattered moments of amusing, sharply observed social comedy (Emily preparing to give her verdict on Alan’s cat paintings is especially memorable) Betts’s play proves disappointing overall, never quite transcending its overly familiar, shopworn scenario. Like Leigh’s weaker works, the piece feels too obvious and rigged in its construction of opposing personalities, and the attempts to flesh out the often crudely caricatured characters with depth (a dead child here, a soldier son serving abroad there) feel more tacky than anything else. Some of the comedy is sitcom-broad (to wit: a gag about Karl Marx and the Marx Brothers) and the poignant moments don’t have the weight they should in Ellie Jones’s production, which comes complete with daft dancing scene change interludes but doesn’t manage to make the music a major player in the characters’ interactions, as David Lewis did so well in his 2011 How to be Happy, a play to which Betts’s feels like something of a companion piece.
The performances from Laura Howard as Emily, Darren Strange as Oliver, Samantha Seager as Dawn and Daniel Copeland as Alan are good, and I especially liked the suggestions of sadness that Copeland brings to the bluff Alan. But the performers can’t always overcome the play’s odder notions: a final suggestion that all the uptight Emily needs (and wants), after all, is to be dominated by Oliver is particularly grisly. As delivered last Friday, the evening’s most potent line was accidental: on the very day of Tony Benn’s death, what were the odds of seeing a play that featured a reference to Saint Benn himself?
Invincible runs at the Orange Tree until 12th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.