Middle at the National Theatre
Middle follows David Eldridge’s well received real-time relationship drama Beginning, which premiered at the National Theatre back in 2017 under Polly Findlay’s direction. The team return to the same venue; however, this two-hander focuses on a different couple: Maggie and Gary (Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan, respectively). As the title suggests, they are middle-aged and confronted with the fact that their marriage might not be working, as well as the fear that life is seemingly passing them by.
An ideal home and a daughter enrolled in a private school suggest a picture-perfect family. Beneath the surface, however, Maggie is aggrieved at how doting her husband is to a daughter whom she feels needs boundaries; Gary, on the other hand, wants to give her the childhood he never had. This raises the question of class and social background and highlights the contrasting upbringings of the married couple.
To add further complexity, Maggie has also met someone else and is now questioning and doubting her feelings for her husband, who is evidently resentful of the job that funds their lifestyle. Is their world about to fall apart? Inevitably, a series of confessions and revelations are triggered as the couple navigate their way through the course of the early hours – again in real-time. The National’s Dorfman space serves well in evoking a sense of intimacy as the audience watch a couple’s lives unfold before them.
Rushbrook captivates as the seemingly steadfast Maggie letting her guard down and unleashing all the thoughts and desires she has kept contained within for so long. Ryan’s Gary – flustered and often using humour as a distraction – provides much of the comedy, while conveying the hidden vulnerability that many men of his generation still sadly find difficult to express. This is clearly a man who loves his family and fears them ever being parted.
It’s not always an easy watch and a great deal of the play is understandably rather sad to absorb. Under the astute direction of Findlay and through Eldridge’s ability to blend humour with pathos, however, we are gifted some light relief to balance the weighty themes. “They don’t do conscious uncoupling in Essex”, is one of the more humorous lines.
This is a well observed and heartfelt exploration of relationships and all their complications. With Fly Davis’s realistic costumes and set, it is also an intricately detailed production – elevated even further by the engrossing performances of Rushbrook and Ryan. As with Beginning, the end note is an optimistic one. It has been revealed that Middle is part of a trilogy, so it will be interesting to see what Eldridge presents audiences with next.
Photo: Johan Persson
Middle is at the National Theatre from 27th April until 18th June 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch actors Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan perform a rehearsal scene from the show here: