We’ve all been to those parties. You know, the ones where it is immediately apparent the moment you arrive that your hosts have just had a blazing row and are still seething at each other, and then you all have to sit around a table and make small talk and polite comments about the casserole, and all the while a fug of simmering resentment and unvoiced fury fills the air until your shoulders are practically level with your ears, such is the tension and awkwardness.
Well, thanks to some courageous and clever staging, Alpha Beta feels exactly like that party. We, the audience, huddle around Frank and Norma’s front room – in the window-seat, on the sofa, at the table – trying desperately to make ourselves invisible as they rampage around and between us, playing out the grim disintegration of their marriage. The play is essentially in three acts:
Act 1, Frank is desperate to leave, but Norma feels their relationship can still be saved; Act 2, they have come to some sort of dismal “arrangement”, which clearly suits neither of them; Act 3, Frank has left, but can either of them really be free? This is a blinkered, claustrophobic, bloody autopsy of a marriage; other factors such as family, children, new partners and neighbours are referred to but never seem to have any real impact on the action. It is all about Frank and Norma and their twisted, wounding, fateful co-dependency.
An hour and forty minutes (no interval) is a long time to be stuck in a room full of such unrelenting vitriol and misery, especially when nothing, other than an exciting and well-choreographed fight scene, actually happens. Thankfully the two protagonists are charismatic enough to hold our attention, and our emotions. Frank is basically a charming dilettante who really doesn’t want to hurt anyone and yet, as Norma put it, “strews his casualties all over the place”.
Norma is a confused and confusing mix of traditionalist and revolutionary; she didn’t really want to be married with children, but now that she is, she is damned if she is going to countenance a change in her circumstances.
Watching them tear each other apart is agonising, yet fascinating. Ted Whitehead’s dialogue is generally pithy, witty and genuine, occasional florid lapses notwithstanding, and the actors tackle it with touching realism. Neither director Purni Morell nor the actors are afraid of lengthy, awkward pauses, which ramp up the tension even further and create yet more punishment for the shoulders.
The social and temporal pitching of the play is a mish-mash. The original 1972 film starred Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts at their working class best, but Tracy Ifeachor and Christian Roe’s Norma and Frank are well-spoken and middle class. Their décor is contemporary and tasteful, as are their clothes, making their references to tinned sardines and shillings and pence seem rather anomalous. The idea that Frank could be a “dirty old man” at the grand old age of 29 roots the play firmly in the early seventies, but then you have to face up to the fact that the casting makes this an interracial marriage, which back then would have been scandalous and yet is never referenced, despite a lot of harping on about ‘what will the neighbours think?’. The problem is that, whatever the author thinks, a marriage does not exist in a vacuum; social and cultural mores will inevitably have an impact on the behaviour of both parties, and if it is impossible to place the situation, either historically or geographically, then it is difficult to relate to or emotionally invest in the people involved.
That said, the quality of the acting was superb. It must be a terribly draining performance for the actors, but both managed to sustain the raw, vibrating energy until the end. Alternately raging and touchingly vulnerable, they were both very real, flawed people. Alpha Beta does not seek to teach a moral lesson, there is no real conclusion to be drawn from all of the drama. What it does is strip two people emotionally naked and present them for our inspection and analysis. Uncomfortable, awkward, yet undeniably gripping stuff.
Review by Genni Trickett
The first major London revival for more than 40 years
by Ted Whitehead.
Directed by Purni Morell. Set and Costume Design by Verity Quinn. Lighting Design by Phil Bentley. Assistant Director – Anastasia Osei-Kuffour. Presented in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Casting to be announced early next week.
“You know… when a structure has lost its essence but retained its shape, the geologists call it: a Pseudomorph. A false shape. That’s our marriage.”
The first major revival of Ted Whitehead’s Alpha Beta since 1972, directed by Unicorn Theatre Artistic Director Purni Morell, opens at the Finborough Theatre for a five week season on Thursday, 18 June, 2015 (Press Nights: Tuesday 23, June and Wednesday, 24 June at 7.30pm)
Mr and Mrs Elliot have imprisoned themselves within a domestic incarceration of marriage, family and society’s twitching curtains. Battling through their self-made entrapment for the sake of the kids, they soon begin to destroy each other through an ugly routine of rows, affairs and suicidal blackmail.
Written with a controlled irony and an underlying compassion for its tormented characters, Ted Whitehead’s bold and unflinching play asks questions about the choices we make to fit in with social conventions – questions that are just as relevant now as they were in 1972.
Originally performed at the Royal Court and West End with Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts, this new staging directed by Purni Morell and designed by Verity Quinn, will take the Finborough Theatre back to its original use, transforming the space into a domestic living room where the brutal examination of a disintegrating marriage will take place.
18th June – 19th July 2015
Wednesday 24th June 2015