National Theatre, Dorfman
17th October, 2017, matinee
‘I want a people carrier.’
American playwright Annie Baker has said that her favourite type of laughter to hear in the theatre is individual pockets of laughter at different times and in different amounts throughout the audience. It’s less so about the big laughs of jokes painstakingly toiled over and more about little idiosyncrasies and well observed behaviours for which she strives. There’s a similar achievement, I felt, in David Eldridge’s new two-hander. Set immediately after a flat-warming party in Crouch End, the host Laura and Danny, who has been invited as a mutual friend’s (himself effectively a party-crasher) plus one, are staring at each other, everyone else now gone home. We spend the next two hours in real time watching a sort of will-they won’t-they dance. It’s not as twee as that sounds. Both thirty-somethings, Danny never sees his daughter and is living back at home with his mum, and Laura is anxious that she’s getting too old to settle down and have kids with someone. Knowing that she is currently ovulating, she wants to hurry the dating process along. And it’s not as farcical as that implies. In fact, Beginning is incredibly well balanced.
Each audience member sits back getting tipsier throughout just like the characters do, watching snippets from their own lives and love stories played back to them. There are times in Beginning when it feels like Eldridge has closely observed me and my girlfriend: taking the piss out of Peter Andre on Strictly (the play is set in 2015), commenting on which professional dancers we fancy, winding each other up, and sharing a love of food and drink. Borders are drawn early on. He has a difficult relationship with his dad that’s a no-go area of conversation. She doesn’t like to be called ‘Laurr’ because her dad called her it, or ‘babe’ because he hardly knows her. There are awkward, potentially testing, moments like when Laura jokingly tells Danny to ‘man up’ and when Danny says ‘cunt’ which makes Laura wince. But it seems truthful and human(?!), away from the idealistic politics of social media. To clarify, Laura and Danny are two believable, individual and imperfect people that we see become a couple. It doesn’t feel written but instead simply observed. The characters are let be; the dialogue, design, performances and direction strive for naturalism. There’s a huge amount of care and faith that’s gone into it all (including by the NT for programming it). Fly Davis’ meticulous design shows a “Crouch End cosy” flat (including working kitchen) with the carpet and feature wall of previous residents, empties and party popper streamers strewn about, and paint samples on the wall. Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton embody Laura and Danny comfortably. Troughton doesn’t simply do an Essex stereotypical lad. He touchingly brings out Danny’s body insecurities, shyness and fussiness. Mitchell is equally as good, playing a woman clearly bright and popular and financially in an OK place, but feeling her body clock ticking and possibly still raw from a distant break-up. As she says, she gets by in a shell of busy activity, but deeper there’s something missing. There are a few lovely details as well, including Mitchell opening the fridge rather than the freezer and then the grill instead of the oven. Is this from her being drunk or still getting used to the new flat layout?
It would be easy to say that this is a play about privileged people (university educated, alright jobs, a social circle, dispensable income) for the privileged few that can get tickets to the Dorfman. The chosen line at the top of this review, which gets a big laugh and is part of a larger speech about 2.4 children and suburban yearnings, also points to the smack of first world problems that could easily make this play seem insignificant. But I fully warmed to Laura and Danny, empathised with their problems, and was drawn into their worlds as much as they are with each other’s lives. It feels a play that has been crafted so skilfully that there aren’t any seams to be seen. To try and drag a metaphor out of it, if plays such as Skylight are sort-of romantic slow cooker plays in which spaghetti bolognaise is made, this is its own 21st century equivalent: a frozen fish finger sandwich with copious amounts of mayonnaise and ketchup-play. Polly Findlay has faultlessly paced the production, especially in allowing the play to take its time during moments of silence and music, embracing the awkward and the aw-shucks, and letting Laura and Danny’s relationship evolve.
There are no easy or pat endings, either. Danny and Laura are aware that there’s a forlorn fear that this might be a drunken dream; that they’ll wake up and won’t like each other, leaving the life they planned out together a nice idea and leaving it at that. I don’t know how much (if at all) Eldridge’s play was compromised from what he first envisaged in the writing and production processes, but it seems to me like it has stayed the same play he wanted. Beginning may be about perfect. Funny, warm, pragmatic and seeking a way out of the loneliness of modern life. To top it off, it has a cracking preshow playlist so try to get there early.
Beginning plays at the National Theatre, Dorfman, until 14th November, 2017.