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Posts Tagged ‘Torben Betts’

Playwright Torben Betts’ unique blend of black comedy & tragedy, veering towards melodrama, with a surreal twist, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine.

Caroline is a famous TV chef & domestic goddess, a Christian, married to a rich banker, with three children and a lovely London home. They are rehearsing the final show to be filmed in her kitchen before they sell up & downsize and move filming to the studio. After the rehearsal, they plan to celebrate left-wing, vegan son Leo’s 1st from Cambridge. Graham the carpenter has just finished his four-months work on the property. This seems like an idyllic family…….

….but Caroline has a drink problem, and her temporary PA Amanda discovers that the Mail are about to use some old photos of her out on the razz. Husband / father Mike, a bit of a lech and a philanderer, returns from golf having got a hole in one but also witnessed a death. Leo is disappointed Caroline hasn’t delivered on her promise to tell Michael his secret, and it looks likely Caroline & Michael’s plans for him might clash with his values. A potential buyer for the house turns up at a most inconvenient time. There’s a storm outside, but it’s nowhere near as fierce as the one that breaks out inside, as most of their worlds come tumbling down, as the secrets and lies unfold. It’s very funny, but also very dark. Underneath the black comedy, there are a lot of truths about families and relationships.

I’ve never seen such an elaborate set at the Park Theatre, a terrific uber-realistic kitchen by James Perkins. It’s the sort of play that requires precision staging, and it gets that in Alastair Whatley’s production. Above all though, there’s a set of superb performances, all in tune with the material. We’re more used to seeing Janine Dee in musicals these days, so it’s great to be reminded what a fine ‘straight’ actress she is, with pitch perfect comic timing (and boy can she do drunk well). Patrick Rycart’s old buffer Michael is a tour de force; he took my breath away when he fell. Charlie Brooks has to play a tragic figure with all the comic chaos going on around her and Jack’s Archer and Sandle have to play things relatively straight too as Leo and Graeme respectively, which they all do very well. Genevieve Gaunt is a delight as PA Amanda, with some very funny turns of phrase and mannerisms.

I really enjoyed this strange concoction, entertaining but thought-provoking too.

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I’m struggling to understand why I haven’t seen a Torben Betts play before. He’s written 14, over half of which have been seen in London. This one’s a transfer from the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond (where a number of his plays have debuted) to the much bigger St. James Theatre and it’s a surprising blend of comedy and tragedy.

Oliver, Emily and their two kids have moved north, following civil servant Oliver’s redundancy, in search of a cheaper life. Emily is a left-wing new age Buddhist who thinks being with ‘real people’ will do them all good and she invites neighbours Alan & Dawn round for drinks (though there aren’t any, as they’ve given up alcohol!). Still, postman Alan brings his own cans and Dawn flirts with Oliver in a very funny culture clash. There are skeletons in all of their cupboards and past tragedy and current tragedy are revealed before Oliver & Emily head back south, aided by Oliver’s inheritance from his mum.

The play has a knack of switching from high comedy to shocking tragedy in an instant, which chills you and makes you question why you’ve been laughing. In addition to the culture clash, it covers a broad range of recent political and social issues such as the consequences of the ‘credit crunch’, British intervention in the Middle East, the transition from Labour to New Labour and private vs state education. It’s like Alan Ayckbourn meets Mike Leigh; more edge than Ayckbourn, broader than Leigh. I liked it.

It must have been very different in-the-round at Richmond, but It sits nicely on the St James’ stage in Sam Dowson’s realistic family living room design. All four performances are very good. Laura Howard’s Emily is earnest and brittle and always right. Darren Strange navigates Oliver’s transition from put-upon husband to man-in-charge extremely well. Daniel Copeland gives Alan more depth than his seemingly superficial first impressions and Samantha Seager does the same with Dawn. Director Ellie Jones’s staging, with its quirky scene change dances, balances the comedy and tragedy well.

Good to see new writing, good to see a Torben Betts play at last and credit to both the beleaguered Orange Tree for producing and St. James Theatre for transferring.

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