Dorfman, National Theatre, London ****
It’s funny the way plays go in batches.
A couple of years ago, the Young Vic revived a couple of two-hander stormers – Conor McPherson’s version of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s The Nest and Marguerite Duras’s La Musica, translated by Barbara Bray.
European perspectives both, they looked at coupledom in typically contrasting ways – Kroetz with a heavy-lidded socialist pessimism, Duras with Pinteresque minimalism. Both beautifully directed by, in the former case Ian Rickson and in the latter Jeff James, expanded the view on what it is to be in a couple, the pressures on it, the heart-ache of it.
This week, two more have surfaced, in rather more British settings but with tinges of European-ness in one case and distinctly not in the other.
Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle in Marianne Elliott’s stylish, stylised West End venture carries clear nods to a more abstract aesthetic beloved of European theatre-makers (Stephens works a lot in Europe, particularly Germany and with Ivo van Hove).
David Eldridge, on the other hand, situates his two-hander solidly in the grungier part of today’s London world, Crouch End to be precise.
Ostensibly, like Heisenberg, it’s a meeting of unlikely opposites – rough diamond, Danny, brought along to the house-warming of Laura, a slim if slightly dishevelled Justine Mitchell.
Both it turns out, are looking for, well, in Laura’s case a father for a child – her biological determinism and body clock is kicking in with a vengeance – and Danny, well, he already has a child but never sees her, feels excluded from a life he thought he was having but had snatched away from him.
Now separated, he’s back home, living a curtailed, pinched life with his mum and gran who is a fiend, it turns out on Facebook and Twitter.
So far so familiar. But it’s all in the writing. Eldridge gives Danny a quirky, awkward turn of phrase that frequently gets the audience on his side by its sheer incongruity and embarrassment. Famously, when Laura is inviting him to her bed, he prevaricates declaring `I’m poorly maintained in the area of the boys.’
Gloriously, painfully cumbersome, it completely sums up the collapse of self-esteem that has overcome Danny since his separation. Indeed, you could say Beginning is a superb study in personal embarrassment.
It is also Eldridge alerting audiences and no doubt reflecting his audiences’ human urge to connect in a technological world in which social media gives us more opportunities than ever `to be connected’ but which is apparently also breeding an epidemic in loneliness – the urge to connect with human flesh and emotion, to have someone to come back to and to be able to forget dinners-for-one and Sundays spent alone.
Mitchell as ever – she has been peerless in a number of classics by the late, much lamented Howard Davies (Children of the Sun, The White Guard, Philistines) – catches beautifully the nuances of a desperate but successful working woman laying it all out as honestly as she can but determined to win over this strange, ungainly man to her nest-making nuclear-family vision of what life can and should be about.
As Danny, Troughton, a one-time RSC man, just gets better and better. Revelatory in La Musica and also the Young Vic’s Bull at about the same time (by Mike Bartlett), here he brings a sweaty, gruff vulnerability that when finally surrendering to Laura’s advance conveys a quiet joyfulness that is irresistible.
Beginning, like Heisenberg, is not without its flaws and implausibilities. But whereas Heisenberg celebrates taking a chance on love, even in one’s dotage, Beginning seems, sotto voce, to be saying something interesting about class – less often referred to or self-consciously so these days, but there all the same embedded in our culture.
Eldridge, in Polly Findlay’s fine production keeps the laughs coming, especially so when reduced to a stalemate in conversation, he makes both indulge in dancing to club-based music – Troughton surprisingly delicately so, a picture of inhibition whilst Mitchell becomes the embodiment of girlish abandon, jumping up and down, arms in the air.
A joy to behold and much to savour, `boulevard’ theatre has suddenly come to London – life-affirming, `feel-good’ fare that in these dark days is taking us back perhaps to some eternal basics: loving and being loved.
A new play by David Eldridge
Laura: Justine Mitchell
Danny: Sam Troughton
Director: Polly Findlay
Designer: Fly Davis
Lighting Designer: Jack Knowles
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Movement: Naomi Said
Staff Director: Joe Lichtenstein
Project Producer: Vicky Hawkins
Casting: Wendy Spon
First perf of this production of Beginning in the Dorfman, National Theatre, London, Oct 5, 2017 and running to Nov 14, 2017
Review published on this site, Oct 14, 2017