Sunday, 28 June 2015

Theatre review: Alpha Beta

Ted Whitehead’s 1972 play Alpha Beta is a forgotten piece of kitchen sink drama getting a taste of a much more modern immersive style at the Finborough. Before the space above a pub was a theatre it was a family living room, and that's what Verity Quinn's design reverts it to for Purni Morell's production: The window shutters and usual seating banks are gone, with the audience invited to sit all around the room, as well as on some of the couches and dining table chairs, putting us uncomfortably in the middle of a disintegrating marriage. As we enter the scene is obviously present-day, with scented candles on the table and a CD player on the bookcase, the radio playing today's news as Norma (Tracy Ifeachor) paints the walls white. It's a happy atmosphere as she gets on with her work in peace, but as the play begins and her husband Frank (Christian Roe) returns, things get icier even if she doesn't realise it at first. It's the eve of Frank's 29th birthday and he's ready to share some of his thoughts about morality as he sees it, and the marriage he feels stuck in.

He's just returned from drinks with a friend whose wife died of breast cancer, and who disturbingly has never been happier than now he's free again. Frank and Norma's marriage is a similarly toxic one, but she's not going to do him the favour of dying, or granting a divorce.


The play is made up of long scenes, some months apart at least, during which the couple increasignly drift apart while hanging on to the pretense of their marriage, ostensibly for the sake of their kids. Initially they come to an arrangement whereby he can sleep around as long as he keeps supporting the family, but sooner or later this won't be enough distance for him either. And whether they live together or apart, any time they're in the same room their relationship is caustic, rage-filled and hovering on the edge of violence.


The design is successful at highlighting the intensity of Ifeachor and Roe's performances, convincingly brittle and angry. But if the modern-dress was meant to highlight the timelessness of such destructive marriages it has the opposite effect, the '60s-'70s references in the text standing out all the more in the setting. It's not so much the talk of pre-decimal currency, the use of "bugger" as the most offensive term Norma knows, or Frank's series of young mistresses called Maureen, Doreen, Eileen and Jean, as the structures which got them into their marriage in the first place and are keeping them in it now.


So despite being in their late twenties and already having been married several years with two kids, the couple seem to have been late to marry compared to the rest of their friends, with Norma having stayed a virgin until her wedding night and suggesting Frank wouldn't have married a woman who hadn't. Divorce is both legally and socially a complicated option, Norma is a housewife and the suggestion of her getting a job of her own is, if no longer scandalous, still something that can be used by her husband as an attack. Ironically, staging it in period might have made it easier to step back and see this pair as responding to the strictures of their times, while remembering that this sort of relationship still exists if under different circumstances. Instead we're constantly reminded that this couple, in these clothes and this apartment, wouldn't really be trapped for the reasons they are. So however well-acted they are we're just stuck with a couple of unpleasant characters - he's insufferable and moralising, she's controlling and shrill - whose self-destructive urges it's hard to care about.

Alpha Beta by Ted Whitehead is booking until the 19th of July at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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