Torben Betts: Alan Ayckbourn's 'darker, younger brother'

As his new play opens, Torben Betts tells Alice Jones about his blackly comic portraits of middle-class culture and angst

Invincible is a new play about a young, middle-class family who move to the North of England because they can no longer afford to live in the “hideous capitalistic gangbang” that is London. Hoping to encounter “real people” and live life on a “smaller, more human scale” up there, the reality is somewhat less idyllic. Their working-class neighbours appear to be from another planet and, worse, their cat Vince keeps vomiting all over the oregano plants. Cue class war over the canapés.

Here then, inevitably perhaps, is a play about the squeezed middle – a domestic black comedy in the mould of Abigail’s Party or God of  Carnage, steeped in 21st-century angst over property prices, debt and coalition politics. When it opened at the Orange Tree in Richmond in March it was the most successful play by a living writer in the theatre’s history. It is now transferring to the St James Theatre, London. 

Torben Betts began writing Invincible in the summer of 2012, largely out of confusion. On the one hand was the jubilant national mood of that summer, on the other, the biting effects of recession. All in it together? What did that mean? On a personal level Betts knew what it was to be an “economic refugee”, having sold his Muswell Hill home and moved up to Berwick-upon-Tweed with his young family 10 years ago. And there was one further source of inspiration. “My neighbours’ cat came into my garden and killed our guinea pigs. It scared them to death. Two of them had heart attacks, but they were neurotic. The thing is when guinea pigs die they cannibalise each other… It was quite messy.”

Crikey. As stories go, this is typical Betts: relentlessly middle-class, bleakly comic, with an undertow of unsettling darkness. Invincible begins as a classic comedy of manners. Emily (zealous lefty, keeps a copy of Das Kapital on the coffee table) and her long-suffering partner Oliver (newly sacked from the Civil Service thanks to “Mr Recession and Mr Cuts”) invite their neighbours Alan (drinks lager from a can, England fan) and Dawn (young mother, wears tight tops) over for a drink. There are elements of old-fashioned farce, even mother-in-law jokes, but the stereotypes mutate into a pin-sharp exploration of modern society that goes to some difficult places – including Afghanistan and Iraq. Emily, a noisily opinionated soul who doesn’t believe in marriage, private property, inherited wealth, figurative painting or sex, is anti-war. Alan and Dawn have a son fighting in one. “The Emilys of this world – and certainly the Blairs of this world – don’t have to send off their kids to Iraq or Afghanistan to come back in body bags,” says Betts. “That’s the tragedy: it’s not a level playing field, and you certainly notice it when you move up North. The North-South divide is huge.”

It is comedy of the blackest kind. Betts prefers the term “entertaining tragedy”. “Everything I write is tragic in its trajectory but I always hope that the comedy is what keeps people on board,” he says.  “Tragedy is what I like. Tragedy is good for us. Melancholy is good for us.”

There is something of the romantic       about Betts. He began writing in 1995 when he gave up on an acting career that never broke beyond the London fringe. In 1999 his play A Listening Heaven, about a young eco-warrior who commits suicide, was picked up by Alan Ayckbourn for a production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in  Scarborough. Betts later became a resident playwright there and Ayckbourn has shadowed his career ever since. Betts describes himself as  Ayckbourn’s darker, younger brother, “which may be the reason I’m not as successful as him…”

Like Ayckbourn, Betts takes Middle England and its foibles as his subject. Like Ayckbourn, he is astonishingly prolific – 14 plays produced so far, and countless more in the drawer. And like Ayckbourn, Betts has yet to win the full adulation of the London theatre scene. When he started out, working in an office to pay off his drama-school debts, he sent his work to every theatre in the country. “I heard nothing from anyone. And I thought, ‘Right, I’m not an actor or a writer. I’m either going to have to kill myself, or emigrate.’” The Royal Court had just returned A Listening Heaven to him with a note saying it was “unproduceable” when Ayckbourn called.

“I have found it quite difficult to get progression. The frustrating thing is, I’ve been kind of ignored by other theatres in this country, I can never get any of them to come to my plays. They either don’t like me, or just are not aware of me.” Now that Invincible has transferred – and next year will have its first Spanish production in Madrid – things are looking up. “It might make people aware that I’m still alive and writing. But I’m not bitter.” He grimaces, with a look that says he clearly is. 

There are two possible reasons why Betts is not yet better known. One is that he lives in “the middle of nowhere” in Northumberland, and has done for much of his career. “My wife decided we wanted more than one child, so I kind of went along with it,” he shrugs. They have three children now – Stanley, 12, Leo, nine and Lara, five. As well as being amenable to family life, the move has allowed Betts to retain an unusually pure attitude to playwriting. He has never written an episode of EastEnders or  Doctors just to pay the mortgage. “I’m not interested in watching it and I can’t see how you can write stuff for something you’re not interested in.

“I’m quite debt averse, that’s my main thing. I have a certain amount of freedom because I am not under a huge amount of financial pressure – well, not as much as people in London. My wife wanted to be a full-time mother, and that wouldn’t have happened if we’d stayed in London. In fact, we would have just stayed with one kid, and our lives would be very different. I wanted to concentrate on writing theatre, and knew that unless you strike lucky every once in a while, generally you have to live on as little as possible.”

That said, he recently took an enjoyable diversion into film. He wrote Downhill, a British indie comedy about four men doing the Coast-to-Coast hike, which plays out like an extended midlife crisis. Hitchcock-style, Betts took a cameo as a helpful hiker. “If I ever make any more films I shall try to get a line in and maybe, after 25 years, I’ll eventually reclaim my acting career,” he says. “But then my wife said I over-acted my line.”

Then there is Betts’ refusal to churn out crowd-pleasers. For every one of his domestic dramas – Muswell Hill, a dinner party shown from the point of view of the kitchen, like Noises Off with tagine, or The Swing of Things, about a school reunion gone wrong – he writes one of his experimental “poetic” dramas. Plays where all of the actors go about in whiteface, say, or speak only in rhyming couplets. As Ayckbourn puts it: “Sometimes, he gets horrendously dark and everyone gets machine-gunned or something and you have to say, ‘That’s not quite what we’re after’. But he’s a real talent.”

It has made him hard to categorise – an eccentric, very British mix of Ayckbourn, Mike Leigh and Howard Barker. The New York Times has described him as “an angry dog with a series of rats in its jaws”. Certainly plays like The Unconquered, in which a middle-class family are caught up in a bloody revolution, burn with the surreal political ire of Caryl Churchill.

He was brought up “a good Labour boy” in Lincolnshire. His grandfather was a communist and conscientious objector, his mother “a benign socialist”. He voted Labour in 1997 but didn’t vote at all in the last election. “Because I was so pissed off.” His next play, What Falls Apart, for Newcastle’s Live Theatre will feature a Labour MP who voted for the Iraq war to  further his career – “and is now having a midlife crisis because he cannot forgive himself.” In the future, he would love to stage one of his state-of-the-nation plays at the National. “But I can’t get a look-in.” It might not be the case for too much longer – the squeezed middle need their theatre fix after all. µ

‘Invincible’, St James Theatre, London SW1, (0844 264 2140; Thursday to 9 August; ‘Downhill’ is out on DVD now

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