Friday 10 November 2017

Beginning, Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, Central London

Images from the National Theatre web site
A stripped-back production in many senses, Beginning involves just two actors, one set and one long, long scene. It can be intense. Depicting the aftermath of a house party, the play portrays an elaborate and feisty courtship between the hostess and a male guest she barely knows. One of the conceits is that the pair seem poorly-suited to each other - she is the managing director of some kind of agency with her own flat in Crouch End, while he still lives with his Mum in Essex. There is little chemistry. The result is long, awkward silences, twitchy body language, restless movement and continual shifts of position, as Laura and Danny manoeuvre around the open-plan lounge and kitchen, strewn with party debris, eating, drinking and trying to decide whether to touch each other.

Scotch eggs and Strictly Come Dancing
Although the careful choreography is very detailed, the actors and the characters aren't that charismatic - it takes a while for you to care. Moreover, the incompatibility of the two protagonists leaves you questioning where the whole thing is going and why it matters. Are we just watching the prelude to a drunken shag after a house party?  Some of the dialogue seems laboured, featuring digressions about Scotch eggs and Strictly Come Dancing, as does the musical interlude in which the characters take it in turns to gyrate to a party playlist.

Past master at passive-aggressive
Still, as the single scene goes on, important themes begin to emerge. Beginning captures the angst that comes with approaching middle age, the pain of loneliness, the longing of childlessness, and the torture of being a remote parent who never sees their child. And Justine Mitchell is a talented actress, adept at changing her tone to convey emotion and frustration, while still maintaining the smiling demeanour of someone trying to make a stranger comfortable. However, Sam Troughton seems more one dimensional - he plays a passive-aggressive bloke pretty well, but you may feel he struggles to give Danny depth despite the back story about a broken marriage and a daughter he never sees. You wonder whether he really did do an arts degree at Bristol, as he claims after dropping a fancy word into a sentence. The script can be mildly amusing, but is far from hilarious. Although Beginning is a brave exploration of important contemporary issues, it slips in the soft middle ground between comedy and tragedy. 7/10