Beginning at the National Theatre
For a play as funny as David Eldridge’s Beginning, it’s surprisingly hard to watch. Danny (Sam Troughton) is the final straggler at Laura’s (Justine Mitchell) moving-in party, the pair caught in the no man’s land between sexual attraction and the actual consummation of those feelings. Two adults – admittedly predictably white, middle-class, heterosexual – with a plane’s worth of baggage, trying to work out exactly what they want from this encounter.
In Danny, Eldridge has produced a creation of wonderful Essexian specificity: works in recruitment, idolises Jamie Oliver, supports West Ham. Loves his mum but is closer to his nan. Can’t speak about his dad because his leaving “broke my heart my whole life”. The slight whiff of cliché is tempered by the deep, genuine sympathy and compassion Eldridge clearly has for the character.
It’s not just the details of Danny’s life – he hasn’t seen his daughter in four years – but the way Troughton carries them. He is like a man with the top layer of skin removed, raw nerves knitted together in the shape of a middle-aged divorcee. At one point Laura accuses Danny of playing up his laddishness, a read that works perfectly with the exaggerated masculinity Troughton uses as a shield.
Eldridge has less of a strong grip on Laura. The character is weakened by the playwright’s choice to largely define her by her wish for a family, well-worn territory that Eldridge is perhaps not in his element exploring. Luckily Mitchell is every bit Troughton’s equal. Outwardly her Laura seems far more mature than Danny: the adult to his laddish man-child. As he becomes more complicated so does she; what could be construed as bluntness is just someone trying to be as upfront and honest as possible. Mitchell even makes the frustrating plot point of Laura wanting to get pregnant by Danny just about work due to the emotional truth of her performance.
One thing the play does struggle with is its relationship to the internet. Eldridge seems to be trying to make the point that Facebook, Tinder et al. have made us more – not less – lonely. Thing is, people don’t constantly chat about who posts on their wall and which friend requests they have and haven’t accepted. These repeated moments are jarring for just how unnatural they sound in a play otherwise painted in excruciatingly realistic detail.
Director Polly Findlay allows the play to soak in its plentiful awkward moments, while Fly Davis’s set is a spot-on recreation of Crouch End living. Beginning is a flayed (hopeful) heart of a play, with a pair of incandescent performances from Troughton and Mitchell.
Beginning is at the National Theatre from 10th October until 14th November 2017. For further information or to book visit the National Theatre website here.