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The Theatreguide.London Review

Alpha Beta
Finborough Theatre   Summer 2015

Ted Whitehead's 1972 dissection of a deeply unhappy marriage is powerful and chilling, and most effective in its broad strokes. But if looked at even moderately closely it begins to break down through a string of gaps between what we're told and what we see. 

The two-hander opens on a couple in their twenties, already unhappy in their marriage. He feels trapped by her neediness, while she is convinced that he is sleeping with every other woman he meets.

Five years later they're still together for the sake of the children, but with the understanding that he is free to sleep with any other woman he wants, and are none the happier. And five years later they are living apart but still bound by their mutual unhappiness. 

The reality of their pain and the inability to escape it are both believable and sobering. It is when Whitehead begins to explore and explain them that the clear outlines of his picture begin to waver. 

By giving the husband several strongly reasoned and eloquent arguments against the very institution of marriage 'Society is organized to create loneliness, the loneliness that leads to marriage. Society creates the disease then prescribes a worse one as cure.' Whitehead establishes his sympathy with that position. 

But his instincts as a playwright rightly make him create the two characters with enough complexity and depth that we see that the fault lies not in their world but in themselves. And even there another gap opens up, between what we are told about each of them (generally by the other) and what we see. 

Even allowing for the excesses of pain and resentment, the man describes his wife as a leeching vampire determined to destroy him.

But what actress Tracy Ifeachor finds to play in the character is a homebody who counts every penny in her household accounts and for whom the outside world is a frightening Babylon inhabited by sluts and vixens luring her husband away.

It would be a much more sympathetic portrait than the husband paints except that she wallows a little too luxuriously in her masochistic unhappiness while employing her single weapon of passive-aggressive victim-playing and guilt-inducing. 

Meanwhile, in her character's eyes the husband is a lothario screwing everything in sight, while actor Christian Roe finds in him an unhappily trapped guy trying to retain some honour while looking for a little happiness, though with an inclination to blame everything on society that begins to grate as an irresponsible cop-out. (His character wins narrowly on points if only because he's looking for answers.) 

Repeatedly being told one thing and shown another muddies the waters of Whitehead's vision somewhat, and director Purni Morell hasn't solved any of the text's puzzles.

Morell's direction falls short in another way. For this Finborough production the audience is seated around the rim of the playing area, sometimes closer to the actors than they are to each other. 

While this creates the voyeuristic intimacy the director wants, she hasn't mastered the challenges of in-the-round staging, too often anchoring her actors in one place. 

To take one crippling example, Tracy Ifeachor plays the entire final scene seated in a chair with her back to one third of the audience (including me), who never see her face in this crucial and dramatic sequence.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Alpha Beta - Finborough Theatre 2015

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