Jeremy Malies in East Sussex
1 April 2023
“Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” by Modjo is hardwired into me now such that it catapults my whole being involuntarily into a Crouch End flat at the end of a moving-in party circa 2015. It’s not the music itself – the piece could be Gregorian plainchant – but the associations with this house track that send me to a place from which I haven’t fully returned since I first saw David Eldridge’s play at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. With Lucy Prebble’s The Effect and the (obvious) candidate of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, I contend that Beginning is among the best plays written this century and I’m unashamed to be an evangelist for it.
Only a matter of weeks after a version at the Manchester Royal Exchange, I’ve now just seen a brilliant production in my home town. Doesn’t Laura speak about “a kiss that makes you feel you’re home”?
The piece is a conversation in real-time lasting 90 minutes in which the hostess and a straggler guest sound each other out, discuss their backgrounds, begin to bond around shared interests and finally enjoy what we assume will be a tender act of congress that might just be, well, a beginning.
Laura (Amy Brangwyn) has been making eyes at Danny (Jonathan Howlett) all evening but as Danny says in one of his opening lines, he has been oblivious. He has no radar – perhaps not void of it but he doesn’t pick up a lot.
Richard Lindfield directs a version that is scrupulously faithful to the printed text and the suggested though never prescriptive stage directions. Stress on a single word can hint at oceans of pain and the progress of the courtship ritual can come down to millimetres as the pair circle each other. Lindfield benefits from a performance full of subtleties and contradictions by Brangwyn who brings a burnished but still not world-weary tone to Laura. This is a streetwise woman who remains idealistic.
Howlett also explores the tensions and contradictions in his character forensically. He veers from laddish football fan to an almost courtly reticence that puts him on the back foot when Laura is up-front about her motives and sexual plans. He is the one who feels out of his depth socially and yet he can hold his own with truly wry observations from Eldridge’s shimmering dialogue. “I often think the world would be a better place if people were more modest about their sexual prowess!” Crucially, Howlett can make his eyes swim with tears (a suggestion in the printed text) and spins the whole mood of the theatre on a dime as he relates anguish over being regarded by his ex as nothing more than a monthly direct debit or when he speaks of his fear that he may be excluded from another child’s upbringing.
With both characters accusing the other of not truly saying what they’re thinking, getting the subtext across here must be an enormous challenge. Lindfield guides his actors through it adeptly. Danny has strict principles about casual sex; Laura is more liberated and hates Sundays on her own with a hangover. She wants to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner with him the next day, not because she is needy but because a hunch tells her that this might work out. At the Darwinian level she has already done some selection. “I want my baby to have a nice daddy.” Eldridge’s point may be that this pair are fundamentally decent people and it’s not such a bad thing that social norms and hierarchies are still based on restraint and competence.
Laura is ovulating (it’s put up front and centre) and for a while there is the much darker theme that she merely sees Danny as a source of sperm. This idea (it would have crushed me given my hopes for the pair) is quickly though not immediately dispelled.
There are several massive signature speeches for Laura, and Brangwyn rises to all the challenges with a prodigious technical armoury and fine judgement. The cynical element in her lashes out at the videos she is being sent of friends from university making cupcakes or on a trampoline in their huge gardens. She wants all this but she is in no way superficial and sees parenting as sacred. Some of these speeches have Eldridge bravely stressing the benefits of the nuclear family. We learn how Laura’s father drank and smoked himself to an early grave within three years of his wife’s death from cancer, and after such gruelling revelations it’s all of a piece that she doesn’t want to evaluate her life. “If I looked in, I’d fold inside myself.” She has watched too many foreign films on her own while eating a meal deal for one.
If there were moments when I empathized totally with the characters, they came when Laura and Danny were telling each other that the confessions and the undressing (both literal and figurative) are taking some guts. “You frighten me the way you look at me – you unpeel me.” When the pair finally prepare to make love, it’s Brangwyn’s character who confesses to being scared. She is Howlett’s equal in portraying contradictions.
Any reservations? Very few. Set construction by John Everett and George Walter gives Laura a functional kitchen in which she cooks fish fingers (again in real-time) with Lindfield and the performers holding their nerve to give us extended periods of dead air. It’s not called for in the text, but standard practice is to have a working oversize kitchen clock to reinforce the naturalism. And I should have liked occasional street noises to ramp up the tension by stressing that Danny could at any moment hail an Uber and escape this as his unseen pal Keith has done. It was great to be in the front row and down in the weeds of the party detritus. My two slightly bewildered companions, Danny-style, tried to tidy up around them after the curtain call and wanted to give binbags to front of house. I thought again of Laura’s gentle irony. “I tell you what, tidying up’s really going to put me in the mood.”
This will never be a period piece because the issues discussed are so integral to human nature and the social contract. But it is anchored in time with, as Laura thinks, Hillary Clinton about to take up residence in the White House early in 2016 and Facebook preeminent as our social medium even for dating. Danny says repeatedly that he and Laura might have had a smoother path to whatever the conclusion will be if they had met online. The social media analysis is acute, and Laura says that she must balance her socialist leanings (she has just joined the Labour Party) with her role as a company director on the same digital platforms.
Laura asks Danny how many times he has connected with somebody like this. I’ve rarely been so enthused about a play and feel privileged that directors with good judgement are allowing me to see it many times. I’m shameless in trying to promote it. And there is another production in south London soon! Cole Porter should have the final word. “What a swell party this is.”
Photo credit: Anna Lawson.