Seeing Torben Betts’ new play in which a rich Tory politician- one who is a bit of a monster underneath his suave exterior- sees his life implode on what might have been a quiet family gathering to watch a solar eclipse is an interesting way to spend the afternoon of EU referendum day. The National Joke allows us to watch as both national and family divides are played out. It is billed as a state of the nation play and while I don’t think it ever reaches those heights it is very well acted and has some clever writing. A play set in the present day can’t ignore mobile phones, even though they are inherently undramatic, and Torben Betts uses them to great effect. Phone conversations are used to heighten irony, speed things along and provide a kind of shorthand, mingling scenes. A single sentence can bring to mind a whole situation that we are not able to see. This is not easy to do and it is not easy for actors to time. I was impressed. There are some powerful scenes in the second half and Philip Bretherton as Rupert St John-Green and Cate Hamer as his second wife Olivia both give believable and heartfelt performances, relishing the chance to let rip some emotion. Annabel Leventon as Olivia’s mother is an interesting character, all surface elegance with little warmth, who finally hears some home truths from her daughter. Charlie the young adult grandchild of the family has brought her married, socialist boyfriend along with her is trying desperately to escape both her family and her relationship. She knows that there will be trouble. She has suffered badly and needs to get her life back on track. Catherine Lamb plays her with a touching honesty, not easy when the most dramatic part of her story is in the past. The final character, Charlie’s boyfriend, was played by Torben Betts himself on the afternoon that I saw the play, using a script on a small tablet. As you’d expect, being the writer, he timed the dialogue very well and in a play with mobile phones as part of the action it was easy to forget that he was working from a script. He made the boyfriend both understated but strong and this was a nice contrast to all the emoting going on elsewhere.
It’s the kind of play that really needs a good director and Henry Bell has clearly done a good job as the play speeds along and the dialogue- even across two different scenes playing out at the same time- is clear and sharp.
This was an interesting afternoon. Some of those scenes will have been difficult to write and difficult to stage. It is a play with a lot of ambition and it doesn’t quite achieve everything it hopes to achieve but that’s good to aim high and I’m glad I saw it- especially the second half. I like Torben Betts’ writing very much.