David Eldridge
National Theatre
Ambassador's Theatre

Sam Troughton and Justine Mitchell Credit: Johan Persson
Sam Troughton Credit: Johan Persson
Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton Credit: Johan Persson

The party’s over but something is just beginning… perhaps.

David Eldridge’s new play, Beginning, which was first seen at the National Theatre (Dorfman) last autumn and has now transferred to the Ambassador’s Theatre, begins with an ending.

38-year-old Laura, a company MD, has been celebrating her move to a new flat in Crouch End. Now, it’s 2:45AM and Fly Davis’s set conjures a forlorn mood. The gold streamers are straggly, the silver balloons are deflating, and the floor is littered with empty bottles, Pringle tins and abandoned wine glasses. The guests have dispersed into the night. All, that is, except Danny.

Danny—lager can in hand, crumpled shirt stained with ketchup—is worse for wear and out of his depth. In his forties, divorced, he lives with his mum—who loves kiwi on her porridge—in Upminster; his nan is his best Facebook friend—he’s the "apple of her eye".

He doesn’t know Laura. As he explains, he came along with his pal Keith, whom Laura promptly describes as a bull-shitter, a blagger, a "monumental and bare-faced liar", insisting that she has declined his numerous ‘friend’ requests. She’s a "harsh bitch" says Danny. The conversation is not getting off to a good start.

He’s a Tory boy; she’s "totally with Jeremy". He’s scruffy and stout; she’s suave and slim. Yet, they say opposites attract and, in any case, she’s not averse to a bit of smut while he has a history degree from Bristol.

Confident and forthright, Laura gets straight to the point: throughout the party, "I wanted you Danny". But, Danny has "no radar"—or rather he has got one but, as he crassly, with unfortunate aptness, explains, "it doesn’t pick up a lot".

What Danny does have is beguiling unpretentiousness and blundering frankness. And Sam Troughton perfectly captures his honesty, emotional frailty and innocent hopefulness. Troughton struts and puffs; then staggers and shrinks.

Verbally and physically, Danny is cringe-making ineptness personified, but his graceless gaucheness is a familiar mirror of our own social gaffes—hilarious and humbling in equal measure, to judge by the audience’s guffaws—and we’re on his side, even as he sprays lager froth over Laura’s new carpet, struggles with an obstinate cork and chokes on his Chablis. As the disco-ball lights swirl to the sounds of Bros, Danny’s boogying makes Ricky Gervais’s David Brent look like John Travolta.

Justine Mitchell’s Laura has a smile that can morph from invitation, to pity, to wince in a millisecond. But Laura’s candour and self-assurance hide a multitude of insecurities. At times, the tears seem on the verge of breaking and there’s a touch of Caryl Churchill’s Marlene about this apparently successful businesswoman whose bravado masks fear and emotional fissure.

The silences—not quite Pinter-esque but still telling—that puncture their fragile conversation express her vulnerability as much as Danny’s. Both are plagued by loss, longing and loneliness. Danny’s father left when he was seven; he hasn’t seen his own seven-year-old daughter since she was three. Laura’s mum died of ovarian cancer when she was twenty; she desperately wants a baby.

Eldridge has structured his play skilfully, building the awkward exchanges to painful hiatuses then sending the conversation spinning in new directions. And director Polly Findlay and movement director Naomi Said make excellent use of both space and rhythm. The temperature varies as the tense exchanges are interrupted by clearing up, dancing, or cooking some fish-finger sandwiches.

This is modern urban living: a world of late nights, lust and lonesomeness. Of Harley Street sperm banks and solitary Sundays with only a hangover for company. Of Facebook ‘friends’ and empty fridges. The text is scattered with contemporary references: Internet dating, cupcakes, Strictly and Downton, Hilary for President.

There’s nothing wrong with contemporaneity—after all, Look Back in Anger was ‘of its day’—but I wonder whether this portrait of our times really digs any deeper than the shallow world it represents? Osborne addressed ideologies; I’m not sure that lamenting "getting stuck with a cunt in the back of an Audi" quite compares.

At the final reckoning, I couldn’t quite believe that this was the beginning of a burgeoning romance: the only thing Danny and Laura really share is a love of scotch eggs. But, it might be another sort of beginning, and one that could just bring more hunger and heartbreak. Though Spandau Ballet’s "Gold" makes for an optimistic pre-curtain soundtrack, when the condom is dispensed with, rather than dispensed, tragedy seems a more likely outcome.

The stumbling and fumbling of the play’s final, self-exposing—in all senses—moments might be seen as heart-warming. But, I worried that, having drunk themselves sober, Laura and Danny would struggle in the cold light of day. As T S Eliot said, "what we call the beginning is often the end."

Reviewer: Claire Seymour