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Review of Invincible at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

I think Invincible from the Original Theatre Company goes down as the show I have known the least about pre-show ever. I hadn't even read the blurb in the Royal & Derngate brochure. My tickets had been purchased simply for two reasons, it being a play (about something) in the Royal (where I have I believe seen every visiting play for the last three years). All I thought I knew is that is was a bit wacky and that it was about a flat share (the former was a little correct, the latter completely wrong). As it turned out, it was perhaps one of the best to come to with no knowledge, as it allowed it to surprise on many levels.

Torben Betts' play opens in a standard living room setting (a terribly simplistic but also perfect set from Victoria Spearing), with a couple warring over marriage, his mother and death. It is a sparky and fast paced opening, offering little glimpses hidden in the lines of how the story will eventually unfold. This exchange while seemingly serious, sets very much the tone of much of the first act. Masquerading as serious, but generally just rather comic, played for laughs and with mostly over the top characterisation. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn't meant to be. Each of the actors, Alistair Whatley and Emily Bowker as Oliver and Emily, the couple whose home the play inhabits, and then Elizabeth Boag and Graeme Brookes as neighbours Dawn and Alan, bring realism to the roles. They are very believable characters, just slightly elevated to work on stage (and add occasionally farcical elements) and make the audience fully understand them.

Oliver and Emily have downshifted up north for monetary reasons, and they find themselves totally out of place next to these new neighbours, as far from their class as you could imagine. However like life is, they all have their own hidden problems, and this is where the real meat of the play hides as the layers are removed. While the first act is very much character building and mostly comic, it lays in place very subtlety those elements to be unpicked in the second, much more serious second act. It also brilliantly plays with your misconceptions of people as well in the first act, definitely making you feel more than a tad guilty at the reveal.

The cast are uniformly excellent, Emily Bowker especially works hard on what is basically a very horrid, preaching character. There is much to dislike as she spouts her opinions upon everyone else, however Bowker's apparent inherent likability allows us that valuable edge to weave back into liking her as events develop. Alistair Whatley is also perfect as the seemingly confused by life Oliver, coping, just, with family life and past events. Downplayed at times quite perfectly, he is the perfect foil for Emily's excesses.

Elizabeth Boag is startling from her dramatic and quite brilliant arrival, eye candy for Oliver and treated with obvious suspicion by Emily, she is often a quiet and brooding character. Common by nature and seemingly never having cast her life further than the street she lives in, Dawn is very possibly the deepest, natural character in the play, and the latter part of the play is really quite saddening as a result.

The most humorous character of the play though is Graeme Brookes' Alan. A football bore, who to quote himself is pretty good at many things, is a brilliant figure of fun. Together with his extra character of his beer belly, he is tremendous value throughout. Once again though, there is an incredible depth to the character, despite the broad strokes that Betts uses to create the character.

Perhaps Invincible's only real problem is that it is such a product of the time period it has been placed that it occasionally seems dated, and will perhaps not stand the test of time much longer. However it is incredibly well received by the audience, who themselves are quite a revelation. Other than a panto audience, I don't believe I have ever sat in such a vocal audience. Often replying to the characters lines and almost joining in on their exchanges. This would usually be an absolute horror to me, however with Invincible, it doesn't matter. We are not meant to interact, but such is our absorption into the people we are watching, I can understand why some audience members wanted to join in at times.

Invincible is a thoroughly entertaining play, quietly observant, and full of multiple layers which truly come together to create an especially absorbing second half of drama, after the very funny first. A really nicely performed and clever play that comes very highly recommended.

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Performance reviewed: Tuesday 24th January, 2017 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

Invincible runs at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 28th January, 2017 
and continues its tour thoughout 2017. Details of dates and locations can be found at http://www.originaltheatre.com/portfolio-item/invincible-2016/

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/


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