FringeReview UK 2022
David Eldridge’s Middle at the National Theatre’s Dorfman is directed by Polly Findlay. Designed by Fly Davis, Lighting Design Rick Fisher. Sound Design Donato Wharton, Movement Director Anna Morrissey, Fight Director Brett Yount, Voice and Dialect Coach Nia Lynn, staff Director Lucy Jane Atkinson.
Till June 18th
David Eldridge never set out to write a trilogy, but he’s beginning to achieve it. His Middle like the 2017 Beginning which transferred to the West End, has opened at the National Theatre’s Dorfman.
In these studio plays, Eldridge matches his own age at writing to those of the protagonists, but there the resemblance ends; except here a West Ham top, there a shared background. Beginning set in November 2015, features a couple straddling each side of forty; and celebrates the excitement of a new relationship leading everywhere.
Middle featuring a long-married couple at forty-nine, is set just three months later. Despite this being a sadder play, their souls touch. Claire Rushbrook’s Maggie mentions her successful friend Jo who got the media career Maggie wanted, living in Crouch End; where Beginning is set. Like that play, there’s a burst of music and an embarrassed dance. Offstage Jo and Beginning’s Laura probably know each other. And to kin it all there’s a young offstage daughter with a shared name, if spelt slightly differently.
What sets Eldridge apart is his patient layering of context, to show why at the start of Middle there’s an explosion. Like Beginning it’s before dawn, Gary finds Maggie warming milk on the stove, not the microwave. She hasn’t slept for a week. Maggie declares ’I’m not sure I love you any more’ and Gary tries hard not to have heard her. The whole play explodes from that in slow motion like the end of Zabrinski Point. And just possibly reverses.
These characters aren’t generic, though they are Eldrigean. Rushbrook’s Maggie, close to breaking into angry tears, visibly holds back; it’s like the rest of her life. Ryan’s Gary sweats bewilderment, typically male in asking what it is he can fix. Rushbrook’s projection of Maggie’s limbo is something Gary can’t grasp: Maggie’s reined resentment, trapped with no real career into having one resentful child whom Gary spoils, notches all the midlife markers as they tick off. Lost career, IVF, low sperm-count, endometriosis, dumped-on motherhood, peri-menopausal (inevitably seized on), being with someone who’s culturally so far wide of you. There’s no hinterland, and most of all Gary thinks he has everything, Maggie, nothing she wants.
Since many fell in love with his last couple, it’s worth examining how Eldridge achieves this.
Daniel Ryan’s Gary isn’t far in manner from university-educated Danny in Beginning; Gary’s painfully conscious Maggie read English at Exeter (like Eldridge); Danny by contrast tries to prove he’s blokier than he is, to fit in: a Gary in reverse. Work colleagues treat them like outsiders. Danny has to rough it, Gary once the youngest, is now the oldest City boy in the team, who made it from Essex – and leather-worked at Romford Market. There’s a whiff of Death of a Salesman about him; he too aspires to a bigger house than he can afford. Gary though has options. Like downsizing and saving his marriage.
Again Eldridge’s play is directed with almost painful acuteness by Polly Findlay. And Fly Davis’ set is another kitchen, gleaming white state-of-the-art stage left (and a battery of working dimmers above), kitchen-diner right; the open door upstage centre shows a staircase with climbing pictures. It’s soullessly affluent. Rick Fisher’s lighting lets the dawn in at the end too, through kitchen windows.
Maggie’s background isn’t dissimilar, it’s just she got to uni and her parents love and look down on Gary in equal measure. Rushbrook’s way is to hold Maggie back from a perpetual outburst that never comes where you fear it might. Especially in her long monologues – Rushbrook has two that unspool her disappointment and disenchantment in equal measure; each holds our attention. After dangerous married men, Gary’s safe. After sixteen years though, resentments simmer; did she want their single child, Annabelle, whom Gary spoils and she has to say ‘no’ to till Annabelle hates her?
Now there’s possibly someone else who might like Tate Modern, who’ s read the shortlist for the William Hill Book of the Year prize. And who ticks all the married-but clichés, which Maggie ultimately knows. Gary can only say he’s read Steven Gerrard’s My Story. His sense of inadequacy is flinching, Maggie’s weaponising middlebrow culture a pathos too far.
Yet Eldridge conflicts this portrait. Gary too chokes back a sudden articulacy. As when considering sleeping in a spare room: ‘I don’t think they have conscious uncoupling in Essex. Unconscious coupling, yes.’ That Gary could give the Tate lovers a run, but elsewhere he’s nothing like as robust, or self-aware. More convincingly at that level buying two sizes of vibrator then hiding them in the attic with Christmas presents speaks believable flinches of tender embarrassment. And loss of a shared confidence. Ryan like Rushbrook holds everything till Gary reacts. There’s a brief tendresse after the explosion; Maggie breaks it by turning the Hoover on.
Eldridge has many registers, from the epic 2006 Market Boy to The Knot of the Heart (2011) to In Basildon (2012). This trilogy so far might pay oblique homage to his mentor and friend the late Robert Holman. The same intimacy, the same making noise quietly; the detailed lives and precise topography – though Eldridge is as determinedly urban as Holman is rural. The real-time 100 minutes though is Eldridge’s signature in both Beginning and Middle.
Midlife doesn’t have to be the end, Gary asserts. The problem-solving world he projects, even moving to Crouch End, shows at one level they’re as far apart as ever. The fragility of the conclusion points all ways too.
Whilst not a Beginning to fall in love with – those expository circuits and bumps as the couple eddy round their marriage are just too close – Middle delivers its de-centered couple with a faithfully resounding tinkle. Judging by the audience, its bleakness tells. Middle bears its own epiphany.