What Torben Betts' new play Invincible lacks in subtlety it makes up for in fun. A domestic farce in the tradition of Ayckbourn and Leigh, four English stereotypes meet and clash in an unnamed Northern town over the course of a turbulent week.
Middle class couple Emily and Oliver (he's an ex-civil servant, she's a socialist painter) are the immigrants who have been squeezed out of London by rising rents. Their married neighbours, postman Alan and part-time dental assistant Dawn, are similarly feeling the pinch. Cue class based comedy that, though it claims the credit crunch for its instigation, might easily have been written at any time in the last forty or fifty years.
Emily (Laura Howard) and Oliver (Darren Strange) offer their neighbours olives and anchovies. Alan (Daniel Copeland) brings his own six pack of beer. Emily makes her own dresses. Dawn (Samantha Seager) has a wood varnish tan and dresses like an extra in a seedy music video. Alan paints portraits of his cat. Emily does abstract paintings. And so on. At one point a joke is made about Karl Marx that is so old it sounds more like a cultural artefact than a passage of dialogue.
It's difficult to tell whether Betts intends to subvert these clichés or simply revel in them. In fact he fairly often seem to do both - during one of the more powerful scenes Emily and Oliver mock their neighbours with a viciousness that soon passes beyond the comic into something more like a challenge to the audience. Yet Betts also gives all his cardboard characters hefty emotional backdrops. As a consequence the play's emotional register hurtles up and down, even as the meticulous plotting keeps the action compelling.
Even though it's undeniably cheap at times (the symmetry of the couples' tragedies are uncomfortably mechanistic), Invincible reminded me how theatre, in the moment, can be purely experiential. The story may be ludicrous, and may even leave a sour aftertaste (it's ultimately a sort of middle class cautionary tale about coming to peace with inherited privilege) but it gives its talented cast lots to play with, with Daniel Copeland's hapless Alan especially entertaining.
Ellie Jones directs with great flair and the play also features two fabulous portraits by Yasmin Dosanjh that are almost worth the ticket price alone.