If you are searching for an absolute definition of ‘awkward’, and I fully accept that you may not be, then look no further than the original National Theatre production Beginning, newly transferred to the Ambassadors Theatre. David Eldridge’s play navigates us through early hours post-party small talk between willing lady – sorry, woman – and reluctant male divorcee; it steers us through hilarious unfunny jokes and embarrassing silences; it guides us
through dad dancing and drunk exhibitionism and ultimately it conducts us through the bitter, hollow sound of loneliness, of body clocks and the basic human need for companionship. It’s said that good drama should make you
think: I disagree. I believe that good drama should make you feel – and then make you think. And, boy, is this good drama. We instinctively feel Laura’s pain, we instinctively know Danny’s prevarication. It’s awkward; and it’s life.
The show is a two-hander and is set in real time, a clever device by Eldridge as it allows us time, as voyeurs of an (eventually) intimate relationship, to grow into the narrative and take good measure of the characters. Fly Davis’s jolly post-house- warming-bash set gives us some familiar bottle-strewn markers for us to hang our party hats on drawing us in immediately to that stale beer and cheap wine fug which always begs the question: why on earth would we risk our carpets, our furniture and our sanity by hosting such an event? Clearing up is always the kicker; and clearing up on your own is the killer. Which is why Laura, exquisitely played by Justine Mitchell, ensures that everyone leaves in taxis whilst keeping more-than- tipsy Danny in her Crouch End lair. Sure her motives are far more than just clearing up. At 38 she’s thinking fun-times, she thinking rumpy pumpy of the unprotected kind and she’s thinking babies. High-flying career woman that she is, she’s elegant in her loneliness and wants a soul-mate to revive her soul.
Danny is not so sure: Sam Troughton has insecurity gushing out of Danny’s every pore. Awkward…? He invented the term. Middle-aged – with the appropriate spread as authentication – divorced, with a seven-year-old daughter hauled off to Cornwall so he never sees her though he pays maintenance, stuck in a kind of ex-lad’s rut, life passing him by without even the slightest tap on the shoulder. He lives with his Mum. And his Nan. And it’s a moot point whether he’d live at all if it wasn’t for upsetting them. And although Laura – the beautiful Laura whom he really fancies and couldn’t stop ogling all evening – is actually, at long last, tapping him on the shoulder he’s not sure, now, whether he wants to be tapped: awkward like a teenager on a first date; infuriating like someone who can’t make up his mind whether he’s indecisive or not.
Mitchell and Troughton together are a dream ticket. No lovey-dovey, soft soap cod-romanticism here. This is the thirty-something wasteland, this is the twenty-first-century sensibilities roller-coaster, this is really what it’s like in the hinterland beyond those photogenic social media lives. Under Polly Findlay’s immaculately empathetic direction Mitchell and Troughton convince us that we really are voyeurs of an actual real relationship and we sit stock still in our seats not wanting to intrude. These two have got style, they’ve got substance and they’ve got an unerring symbiosis that suggests that this is more than mere acting – this is authentic.
Davis’s set is nicely framed by Jack Knowles’s lighting design though I’m not sure that he would have given his blessing to the cheapo Maplins disco light that Laura sets in motion at one point and Paul Arditti’s effective sound design is complemented by one of the funniest lines in the play (and there are a lot of them) when Danny switches on the party playlist and, swaying in drunken, unrhythmic semi-gyration he gruffly pronounces the single word “Tune!” as if that was a sufficient way to sum up the entire world’s musical output. Production values are high, then, though we would expect nothing less from a National Theatre show and the intimate Ambassadors theatre is a cosy setting for what is not so much a kitchen-sink drama as a latte-avocado show.
Eldridge in Beginning takes us through all the stages of a fledgling relationship from peak-awkward opening gambits through to post-millennial, 21st century, Facebook-backlash consummation: it’s a life-affirming, if at times tortuous, journey but, one suspects, an increasingly familiar one. Great show: go see.
Review by Peter Yates
Every story starts somewhere. It’s the early hours of the morning and Danny’s the last straggler at Laura’s party. The flat’s in a mess. And so are they. One more drink?
Following a sell-out run at the National Theatre, the acclaimed five-star production of Beginning transfers to the West End from 15th January 2018. Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton reprise their critically acclaimed roles as singletons Laura and Danny, in this season’s must-see smash-hit; a tender and funny story about the first fragile moments of risking your heart and taking a chance. The Evening Standard calls David Eldridge’s masterful new play “the (anti) romance for 21st century London, and quite simply, magnificent.”
Booking Period: 15 January – 24 March 2018
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes, no interval
Age Restrictions: This show contains strong language and adult themes.