A revival of Ted Whitehead's dated play about the trappings of marriage.
Newlyweds beware! ‘Alpha Beta’ is about the worst sort of marriage breakdown. Even if you’re full of hope about the future and still have some faith in your loved one, Ted Whitehead’s play may have you pondering possible exits.
Purni Morell, artistic director at children’s theatre the Unicorn, has transformed the tiny Finborough Theatre back into what it once was – a spacious living room. With the windows un-curtained and the walls white, the audience sit around tables, on sofas and at window seats. We are voyeurs, slap-bang in the middle of the unhappy world of Frank and Norma Elliot. Aged 29 and 26 at the start of the play, they are married, have two children, but loathe each other.
Whitehead’s play is a study of the dangers of marriage as an empty social construction: getting hitched, and sticking with it, because it’s the done thing. Over a period of nine years we see each of them querying why they tied the knot in the first place. Frank openly laments his vow of fidelity and desperately tries to convince Norma for a divorce; Norma won’t have that though, because, she says, she’s ‘resigned’ to marriage.
When the play first opened in 1972 it may have rang much truer about the pretence of a happy marriage that hides shattered lives just for the sake of it. But performing it now, and setting it now, the play feels dated. A lot is unsaid – particularly from Mrs Elliot’s perspective – about why they want to maintain their sham. Perhaps if the production had been set when it was written it would prompt more compassion for their situation. But today – where divorce is not such a dirty word and families come in all different shapes – we need more answers. You can’t help but ask: why the hell are they even bothering?
By keeping us all up close in their suffocating environment, Morell does succeed in plunging the audience into the heart of the Elliots’s suffering and at times it’s a gruesome experience. Tracy Ifeachor and Christian Roe’s performances are strong enough to make us feel uneasy about watching something so horribly private. But ultimately the play never demonstrates that this husband and wife actually ever even liked each other. And for this twenty first-century wife, that’s a difficult one to comprehend.