Two Excellent Actors Lift Bleak Story of Nightmare Marriage

Bill Hagerty shares the misery of Alpha Beta at Finborough Theatre

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Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts played the protagonists in the original production and subsequent film of Ted Whitehead’s bleak examination of a sexless, joyless marriage. They received much better reviews than did the play, proving, as does director Purni Morrell’s revival, that fine performances can rescue even the most convoluted and overwritten pieces to tumble from a writer’s mind.

Not that Whitehead lacks ideas in observing marriage and all its sometimes gory, often depressing and always sad failings. But his play does not contain enough original, radical thinking on the subject to justify its length – at an interval-free hour and 40 minutes, it runs half-an-hour longer than the movie, which was probably much better for the surgery.

Uncut, it is repetitive in its arguments as the Elliots, a middle-class and, here, accent-free Liverpool couple with a union foundering on Frank’s dissatisfaction at being tied to a wife and two young children and Norma’s initial anguish and then rage at his betrayal of the her and the family.

Norma is a stay-at-home wife, Frank an eager-to-stray husband. The relationship is very much of its time: divided into three ‘acts’, the text spans ten years from the early 1970s, predating the liberation of women from the kitchen sink and the relaxing of traditional male domination in marriage.

Director Morell has not chosen to recognise this fully, for although the all-white decor of the Elliot’s sitting room could have sprung from a1970 furniture store catalogue, an incongruous mobile telephone and Frank’s haircut, which denies the very existence of the cultural revolution taking place in Liverpool back then, are as contemporary as Twerking.

There are some more arresting touches to the production, especially staging that has the audience actually sitting in and around the room, thrusting them into the heart of the action – potentially uncomfortably so when a violent physical fight, splendidly choreographed, ranges over Verity Quinn’s set.

Earlier, as the audience takes seats at the dining table or on a sofa, Norma is busy redecorating the room, applying white paint to a large expanse of wall. It is a very large expanse of wall on which she spends such an inordinate time that one wonders if we really are going to be faced with watching paint dry. But then the 29-year-old Frank arrives, bathed in frustration, to announce that he believes their relationship would be healthier if they separated. He feels trapped. He wants the freedom to pick up other women. He’s a pain in the neck, but such ingrained unhappiness and deep-rooted fear of a desolate future does Christian Roe bring to the role that it is absolutely believable.

Tracy Ifreachor, as Norma, is equally so as she struggles to survive in a mockery of a marriage – Frank’s description – and deals with both creeping loneliness and the slow realisation that Frank’s erratic life pattern is leaving a string of casualties in its wake. Their misery is relentless; their hopelessness almost terrifying.

There are moving moments, too, but even this accomplished pair cannot achieve total acceptance of the piece as an accurate depiction of a real-life tragedy. The casting of the gifted Ms Ifreachor as Norma, thereby making this a mixed-race family, doesn’t help. Even though I firmly believe in multi-ethnic casting, it intrudes when dealing with life in Britain more than 40 years ago. The neighbours won’t care about the ‘ritual slaughter’ of a marriage in the house next door, argues Frank. Maybe not, but only because they’d be too busy gossiping about the beautiful but brown wife and kids.

The plot of Alpha Beta radiates more misery than anyone deserves. Don’t take your partner for an anniversary night out.

Alpha Beta continues until July 19. For tickets, call the box office on 0844 847 1652 or book online at Ticketweb

July 1, 2015