BWW Review: BEGINNING, National Theatre
It seems to be the week for notable romcom two-handers. Joining Simon Stephens' Heisenberg and David Ireland's The End of Hope is David Eldridge's meditation on the loneliness and halting longing of modern relationships.
Laura has christened her swish new Crouch End flat with a housewarming party, and now - in the early hours of the morning - the only guest remaining is friend-of-a-sort-of-friend Danny. These two virtual strangers dance around the question of a hook-up, gradually revealing more of themselves to one another.
While Stephens went for short scenes in a punchy Marianne Elliott production, Beginning is all about naturalistic sustained action, playing out in one long real-time scene over 100 minutes. It means the fumbled connections between the pair are - deliberately - excruciatingly awkward, with no scene cut to save them, or us.
Yet there's a kindness that underpins Eldridge's writing, so that we see the earnest intention behind each ill-considered joke or slapstick show of nerves. The superb latter includes the hapless Danny's dismay as he corks a bottle of wine or sinks into a quicksand-like sofa, and a neverending dance sequence, as Laura goes from seductive elation to embarrassed defeat over the course of an entire song. (Great movement throughout from Naomi Said).
Eldridge begins with slightly hoary culture clash - metropolitan high-flyer versus bumbling Essex boy - but gradually unpicks those types. Laura astutely notes that Danny's self-effacement is partly an act, while she is happy to bond over scotch eggs, fish finger sandwiches and Strictly.
There's a pleasure in the specificity of Eldridge's frame of reference, from the very particular connotations of living in different parts of London to the 2015 series of the BBC ballroom juggernaut (Laura likes Jay McGuiness, Danny fancies pro Aliona). One of Laura's attempted pick-up lines involves watching the show on iPlayer the next morning in bed.
Some of the 2015 setting is a little more laboured, like the complete dismissal of internet dating and over-familiar Facebook gags. Nor is the idea that the digitally interconnected era can leave people feeling even more isolated a revelatory one.
There's also a slight reactionary element in Laura recognising that her friends' perfect social media lives are probably false, and yet still yearning for a big white wedding and making cupcakes with her beaming children; professional success, in contrast, is painted as hollow.
It's at odds with her staunchly feminist leanings - she pulls Danny up on his casually sexist language, like "babe", "skirt" and "lady" - and Eldridge's sensitive study of a guy who needs tenderness and understanding just as much as she does.
But their muddled desires are expressed in hilarious and quietly heart-breaking ways, as they seem to compete to turn one another off: Danny, delaying the inevitable by suggesting a tidy-up, abruptly demands "Where are the bin bags?", while Laura murmurs, huskily, "I'm ovulating".
Loss mingles with the stirrings of something new - former partners and spouses, children and parents, an idea of self changed over time. "I've been sensible my whole life," explains Laura, who's now, in her late thirties, questioning the choices that have left her prosperous but alone.
It's an exposing piece, and - in a bravura production - director Polly Findlay paces it absolutely meticulously. She draws nuanced performances from Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton, with articulate details in each line reading and movement.
Fly Davis's set is similarly spot on, from the party detritus - wilting streamers, Pringles, bottles and propped-up cards - to the precise rendering of an upmarket flat that signals a certain success for Laura.
But Eldridge's theme is that "home" is so much more than buying in the right postcode or having a state-of-the-art oven. Not radical, perhaps, and this is ultimately quite a conventional portrait of love (white, straight, urban middle-class), but that burning desire for connection is universal and sincerely communicated. A gentle gem of a play.
Photo credit: Johan Persson