“Beginning”: David Eldridge

Jeremy Malies at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

 

David Eldridge’s Beginning is a play for two people that begins at the tail end of a party in an up-market flat in Crouch End. I saw it at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch which, by no coincidence, is in the same part of Greater London (formerly Essex) where many of the places referenced in the dialogue are located. Laura, played by Amanda Ryan, is a 38-year-old managing director, and it is her housewarming. A boorish (unseen) work client who she would never have included has not only got himself invited but brought a friend Danny (Simon Darwen) who is the final straggler. He is much less uncouth but still a tad “laddish”. Laura and Danny are the last pair standing and could seemingly drink for England as we watch them in real-time (there is an over-sized clock) for a hundred of the most delicious, gruelling, tearful (that’s me, not to mention them) minutes I’ve ever had in a theatre. There is a quote from Joseph Conrad at the beginning of the playscript, “Who knows what true loneliness is – not the conventional word but the naked terror?” Maybe Laura does; she has been sexually active in a casual way but desperately lonely and bored for ten years, confessing to having whiled away time by reading every novel on the annual Booker Prize long list. She wants Danny and asks if he could not sense her gazing at him all evening. “No, you see I’ve got no radar!”

 

Amanda Ryan and Simon Darwen. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

 

Danny has been living as a celibate with his mother and doesn’t think he will be able to perform. He’s deeply and eloquently in touch with all aspects of his sexuality and wants to be held tenderly as much as she does. And if things work out, he wants to cook Jamie Oliver recipes for this amazing woman whom he cannot bring himself to kiss.

In one phase of the play while music is coming from the stereo system, Danny dances towards Laura, this being a way of disguising that he might be at last making the decisive move. Hints abound in the text, but director Joe Lichtenstein gives the whole evening the precise structure of a dance and he deserves credit for the adept physical comedy. (Never have I wanted to break the fourth wall in a theatre more than when longing to tell the struggling Danny how to rescue the uncorking of a wine bottle when it’s begun to go wrong.)

I would bet that Ryan’s preparation for her detailed multifaceted acting involved observing courtship rituals among birds such is the way in which she saunters and sidles around him. There is a kind of reverse deus ex machina that is mentioned numerous times: we heard the last guests get into a cab and Danny could summon an Uber at any time. His other form of partial retreat is to move upstage into the finely observed kitchen (design by Fly Davis and Libby Todd) to busy himself with tidying up the party detritus and delaying any act of intimacy.

 

Amanda Ryan and Simon Darwen. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

 

Finally, the pair strip but they have already undressed each other figuratively and removed protective layers in the most tender way possible by discussing their childhoods, parents, education, and the inevitable “baggage”. (In a surprising plot twist, he is more encumbered with baggage than she is.) Laura’s biological clock is ticking, and she is frank in admitting this. There is a harder edged strand to the plot insofar as at one point she asks about the possibility of simply enjoying what she intuits will be a tender act of congress but bringing up any resulting child on her own. Danny is by turns offended and then persuasive in telling her that they might have a future whereupon Eldridge gifts his actress what must be one of the best speeches written this century. In a joyous arc of a monologue, Laura speculates on becoming a parent with Danny, growing old with him, and relishing everything that is good about the nuclear family right down to making cupcakes with the children. Linguistically it’s as exquisite as the famed “cricket bat” speech in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Eldridge’s equivalent is justly celebrated and is becoming popular as an audition piece.

The outcome? Well, I’ve said that there is an undressing. Some of the broad analysis in the play is of Facebook and Internet dating. Danny even says that their interaction would have been far easier had it begun on social media; real life – at least with an attractive member of the opposite sex – is frightening for him. Reviewing the 2017 premiere of Beginning in the Dorfman at the National Theatre for this magazine, critic Christine Eccles ended her piece with, “If I were in my late thirties and on a stressful first date with a wary stranger, this is the play I’d hope was his choice.” Christine was wiser than she knew; such a tentative (successful) first date did indeed take place between a real-life couple, and they wrote to Eldridge to tell him that their wedding bands include the word “Beginning.” Eldridge wells up every time he thinks of it, and I doubt if a prettier compliment has ever been paid to a writer in any art form.

 

Amanda Ryan and Simon Darwen. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.