About a quarter of the way through Beginning, I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to write about it. You’ve got your alpha-y leading lady, played by Justine Mitchell, who tends to faux-cheery criticism and doesn’t like the c-word. You’ve got your slightly-schlubby-in-a-cute-way leading man in Sam Troughton, who’s bashful and awkward and has hidden darkness. It’s an inversion of expectation, you see: she pursues, he demurs. So, will they? Won’t they?
After about a quarter of the way through, all of these things more or less remain true. But gosh: it’s a good play. Playwright David Eldridge and director Polly Findlay have meticulously managed the pace, inching up and dialing back tension, letting the erstwhile lovers draw together and spring apart without allowing the forward momentum to go slack. It repeats, but doesn’t feel repetitive. It’s tense and awkward and sometimes almost boring, but only ever in the way a first date (or first hookup) can be, when you’re sat with someone you’re inexplicably drawn to and you know that you just need to hold on, to push past the friction generated by two human beings getting close to each other, because you have to see what happens, because it might be the best thing you’ve ever done. Or, you know, the worst.
Beginning has transferred to the West End from the National Theatre’s Dorfman, but it fits comfortably in the larger space of the Ambassadors (itself rather small, as West End theatres go). The naturalistic living room set is a remarkable example of its genre, in that it mostly looks like a place a real person could afford in the circumstances as described. The design overall is detailed and precise: Mitchell’s glittery heels and when she abandons them, Troughton’s ketchup-stained shirt. A half-hearted string of party lights and a working clock on the back wall that displays a perfect time of night for a conversation like the one that unfolds in real time over the course of just about two hours.
Early chatter floats around timely-feeling topics—unequal post-hook-up expectations for different genders; the casual sexism of a group of lads, and whether any one of them is really to blame for it—and Mitchell’s Laura tends to come out the worse. It’s hard not to feel like her light feminist harping is meant to be a joke at her expense, to nudge us onto the side of Troughton’s ill-at-ease, misspeaking Danny, who obviously means no harm. So much of the early stages involves unraveling his layers of secrecy that the dramatic energy feels unfairly unbalanced: Danny takes shape, while Laura is just a hot, slightly prickly means of drawing him out.
But the scales even out as the play continues, even when a major revelation about Laura’s hopes for the evening threatens to permanently unbalance them. But Eldridge – with help from the great work of Findlay, Mitchell, and Troughton – somehow, amazingly, turns what could so easily have been a jarring, bitches-be-crazy twist into the hinge of the evening, thematically perfect because, not in spite of, its implausibility.
A recurring thread about social media and online dating feels half-hearted, and not particularly fresh. Yes, we all know that everyone’s lives as shown on Facebook are fake, but is online dating really more of a cesspool of loneliness than bars? It would be strange for thirty-somethings in 2015 not to refer to social media, of course, but Eldridge doesn’t really seem to have anything to say about it. What he does understand is uncertainty and loneliness and coming to the kind of emotional precipice that makes you think you feel like maybe you could do anything. Perhaps such feelings have been enhanced or changed by the pace of the modern world, but when Eldridge digs down deep into his characters’ souls, the parts that really resonate feel rather more timeless than that.
That’s a tricky word, of course. There’s nothing universal or timeless about white, middle-class thirty-somethings in Crouch End, despite what most film and theatre would have us think. And do we really need yet another play about hetero love? Well… maybe? At least, maybe we could use another reminder that we’re all just people, that most of us are just managing as best we can. We’re not really lonelier than ever, we’re not really crueler than ever. We’re no farther from happiness than we’ve always been.
Beginning is on until 24 March 2018 at the Ambassador’s Theatre. Click here for more details.