FringeReview UK 2017
David Eldridge’s Beginning at the National Theatre’s Dorfman is directed by Polly Findlay. Fly Davis’ glittering dishevelment of party streamers encompasses a smart kitchen where snacks cook in real-time. Jack Knowles lights up that subdued 2am feel that smarts your eyes. Paul Arditti’s raucous bursts of pop tear through cobweb intimacies. Till November 14th.
In a world corralled by dating apps and Owen Jones’ political Twitter Danny’s still stranded himself in that most traditional of openings: as the last survivor of a house-warming in Crouch End given by MD Laura. Almost swaying with wine in her new open-plan, she’s disarmingly direct, correcting his assumptions. ‘I wanted you, Danny.’ She’s the pursuer; he hesitates despite returning her feelings. Where you can even prevaricate after that in a hundred minutes is what rivets you to this real-time play.
Another time anchors David Eldridge’s Beginning at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, directed with almost painful acuteness by Polly Findlay. It’s November 2015, and new Corbynite Laura pronounces: ’Things can only get better…. America is going to elect a woman president for the first time in its history.’ There’s Strictly badinage with rival fantasies, and Downton. The fragility of a time so near us yet so far off underpins every chance taken by Laura, Danny, or the world. Even Laura’s third house move in what Danny terms the pesto triangle releases more vulnerable asides for them both. Fly Davis’ glittering dishevelment of party streamers, bin bags and food encompasses a smart kitchen where snacks cook in real-time and Stella explodes over sofas. Jack Knowles lights up that subdued two a.m. feel that smarts your eyes, with various switches. Paul Arditti’s raucous bursts of pop tear through cobweb intimacies in yet another exposure: delicately drunk dancing. It’s tangible, even waftable, yet imbued with an innocence we know will be lost, yet again. Still the title signals the resilience of fresh starts like new-baked pizza.
The first third of the play peels back Danny’s fantastical pratfalls and avoidances. Imagining his idiocy on Facebook he dismisses Danny + Laura after ten minutes: ‘Really hot lady told me I was hot and wanted to sleep with me and I didn’t shut the fuck up.’ In fact it’s not expletives of self-criticism but the use of ‘lady’ and the c-word later Laura objects to, unpicking the ‘Tory-boy’. This is Danny’s Labour-voting but Lord Grantham-would-be-riding nan’s name for him (she’s ninety-two and posts this on Facebook). Eldridge’s dramatic irony doesn’t spare us c-words later from an ironic source, but the wonderment of how to keep swerving from a woman Danny admits he’s extremely attracted to is almost Beginning’s core felicity, including the later dancing and non-dancing stretched out so painfully. Then Danny’s displacement clearing-up and a Pinteresque string of silences. At its heart, however, is a rare tenderness that makes you care desperately for its two bruised protagonists.
The second third peels Danny’s insecurities like winces of sunburn, grounding his shyness and desolation in a wholly believable past. Laura, the sexually confident MD to his muddle-management mess of a life, strips her own pasts and desperations in a way she confidently assumes will make him run like most men. ‘My life’s a shell of activity’ Laura confesses, adding later: ‘I’ve put my heart in my hand and I’ve shown you it. Offered it. Freely.’ After such knowledge, you wonder. They might not know each other but as Danny says ‘Darling, I am your black cab driver for the night’ and she’s his.
Justine Mitchell’s Laura is both sexy, teasing – and somehow always leaving a little in reserve. There’s both a knowingness and unknowableness about her performance that makes her ultimate vulnerability both believable and harrowing. Sam Troughton’s Danny is sometimes so hangdog you wonder what Laura sees in him. But he’s often witty, despite as she says “roughing up” his intellectual brio after he lets “patently” slip out. His vulnerability though too seeps out, almost off-puttingly. It’s Eldridge’s brilliance that he draws this out over 90 minutes and that Mitchell and Troughton can live along his lines. The end, when Mitchell projects a future like a desperate filigree cobweb of decades for them, is aching in tenderness and entreaty. Their performance are not only truthful, they’ll live in the memory of anyone who sees this wondrous play
In the last stretch every desire and vulnerability seems tested almost to destruction. With some personal assumptions flayed, it’s if neither wishes to believe their luck or happiness; each seems determined to press unmentionable needs or reflexes so many of us will squirm in our seats. Eldridge’s key insight into the What the F App generation is a bleaching loneliness, people stripped of support, disposable work colleagues whose behaviour can be pitied or scorned. Hours after this, this reviewer saw David Ireland’s The End of Hope which though a different two-hander of an encounter, carried a remarkably similar burden. It might be another reason why Beginning is the kind of play we all know we need: wincingly heartwarming, devastatingly joyous. It’s quite wonderful. Don’t miss it.