Torben Betts is much admired by his near-namesake Quentin Letts for socking it to London trendies. Letts is one of the few individuals who enjoys the twin blessings of a Critics’ Circle membership card and a functioning brain so his views deserve serious attention.
The title of Betts’s 2012 play Muswell Hill shifts its target into the cross hairs with no subtlety whatsoever. Curtain up. Married couple, Jess and Mat, are nervily tidying their yuppie dream home in expectation of supper guests. Jess is a sex-bomb accountant. Mat is a blankly handsome scribbler whose debut novel keeps getting rejected. Then a missile strikes. Mat casually mentions his acquaintanceship with an Australian electrician whom Jess has been secretly entertaining. Tense silence. The doorbell rings. Into this emotional quagmire march two damaged misfits. Karen is a vegan widow (enough said), and Simon is a ranting Trot who wants to burn capitalism to the ground and dance in the embers handing out sweeties to grateful orphans. Fresh arrivals swan in. Tony is a pompous grey-haired clot (beautifully done by Gregory Cox), who makes shedloads of dosh directing Shakespeare at American universities. A perk of the job is a luscious harem of actresses from whom to pick and choose. His latest selection, alcoholic Annie, has secured from him a promise of marriage which he now bitterly regrets. The three couples crash and bounce off each other with gruesome results. I found it all quite funny and sharp but, perhaps, a little contrived.
My neighbour, a tall, lanky Gillette-dodger about the same age as the characters, snuffled and chortled with pleasure at every line. Evidently he was determined to get his money’s worth from a show that threw a white-hot searchlight on to the follies of his bourgeois chums. At the interval he clapped so hard I thought his palms might catch fire. Who was this fanatic? A snatch of eavesdropped conversation revealed him to be a certain playwright: Torben Betts.
Act Two began and his gleeful reception of every witticism and plot twist increased. Did I find this irksome? On the contrary, it was an unexpected delight to be seated alongside a writer who was receiving so much amused stimulation from his own efforts. But I fear his innocent joy may have softened my criticisms, which are threefold. His play thrusts Jess and Mat into a tense and brilliant dramatic predicament that he fails to follow up. This makes us feel cheated. The script lacks a central personality (easily fixed), and some of his human creations are so grotesquely distorted that they become stiff and unlikable. And perhaps unbelievable too. This may explain why Betts isn’t a West End fixture. Not yet anyway. I reckon he’ll get there.
How I Learned to Drive plunges us into the Deep South during the 1960s. The moral climate back then looks to modern eyes like a diseased and fetid mutant. Child abuse and incest were a community sport, like fox-hunting or hare-coursing, which the participants viewed as a dangerous form of fun that produced the odd regrettable casualty. ‘A girl with her skirt up can outrun a man with his pants down,’ was the advice offered to girls on the cusp of puberty. Cops, judges or social workers were never involved. When teenage Li’l Bit accepts driving lessons from her Uncle Peck (not a blood relative), she knows full well which way his plans lie. A sad rather than a menacing figure, Peck pursues his quarry with dogged and faintly icky determination. He ogles her. He photographs her. He lavishes her with perfumed endearments. He sits beside her in the car quaking and throbbing with thwarted lust. Occasionally, he fondles her breasts, which are unpeeled and served up only after a lengthy, ceremonial negotiation. She remains a virgin until her 18th birthday. Cue his first attempt at a full seduction, which she repudiates. He then gallantly produces a ring and offers to divorce his wife and marry her.
Legally this is watertight. Paula Vogel’s play, written in 1997, reveals itself in a leisurely series of colourful tableaux rather than with a suspense-filled narrative. It ambles rather than sprints but it remains a valuable document because it debunks two myths that our society has turned into holy writ. One is that every paedophile is a slavering, diabolical kiddie-captor who deserves lifelong detention in a barbed-wire prison teeming with rape gangs. The other is that every experience of child abuse, however mild, is ineradicably toxic and leaves the half-formed mind inscribed with an emotional scar that can be erased only by a vast inflow of money facilitated by a QC and reinforced by a lucrative Kleenex-assisted memoir in a mass-circulation daily. This is a useful corrective to both absurdities.