It starts with a silence and a glassy-eyed stare. At the end of a housewarming party in north London, the last two left standing look at one another. Hostess Laura — fortyish, svelte — wobbles slightly in the doorway. Danny — slightly younger, less svelte – stands swaying in the middle of the room, ketchup stain down his shirt, swigging the last of his beer. You could break the sexual tension just by blinking.
They do — repeatedly — in David Eldridge’s will-they-won’t-they-god-why-don’t-they romcom “Beginning.” Newly relocated to the West End after raves at the National Theatre, “Beginning” shows us the stop-start start of something that might be quite special — but equally might not. Having come so close to kissing, these two lonely hearts spend close to two hours trying to rekindle that spark. Played in real time, it’s a blistering little examination of the anxieties that accumulate as life rumbles on, and each time they come close to achieving that kiss, either Laura (Justine Mitchell) or Danny (Sam Troughton) blinks and the moment deflates.
It is, in the grand scheme of things, tiny: a late-night encounter between two drunken strangers who may or may not get it on. But Eldridge manages to make that feel momentous — and, equally, not. Fumbling towards a fumble, holding themselves back, both Danny and Laura give themselves away — their hopes and their hurts, their insecurities and imperfections. What starts out as cringe-comic clumsiness, as beer cans explode and c-words spoil the mood, starts to look like emotional reticence and confidence-in-crisis. Hovering on the cusp of a song (again), Danny whips open a big bag and starts tidying up.
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Both characters, slowly, let their true selves slip: Danny, divorced, estranged from his young daughter, living with his mum and his low self-esteem; Laura, a careerist whose veneer of success masks a gnawing loneliness and deep-rooted dissatisfaction. This simple snog starts to seem like their last chance saloon, and they try, dearly, to keep its chances alive: a brilliant awkward dance-off to Bros, fish finger sandwiches, Scotch egg-based small talk — two strangers scrabbling for some common ground. “I wish I met you online,” Danny exhales exhaustedly.
It is beautifully written, heaving with heart and humor and little human foibles, and Eldridge cares, deeply, for his characters. He’s keenly attuned to the specific anxieties of age, gender and, particularly, class, all of which elevates “Beginning” to the brink of social commentary on London today — gentrifying, hardening in some ways, softening in others. Details bear fruit in brilliant performances. Troughton’s Essex boy Danny, torn between old-school masculinity and sensitive metrosexuality (“I’m a bit poorly maintained in the groin area.”), becomes an unreconstructed bloke desperately trying to pull himself together, while Mitchell has the pinched, polished quality of a serious woman who’s spent decades reining herself in. Every so often, her goofier, gauche side blurts out.
Out of that comes a well of comedy, and Eldridge toys with the sexual tension masterfully so that a small-scale scenario feels both impossibly high-stakes and frightfully precarious — one slip of the tongue could collapse the lot. Polly Findlay’s direction keys into its awkward silences and its heart-thumping excitement, and if “Beginning” doesn’t quite always hold its tension as the kitchen clock ticks away, it’s because Eldridge, like Danny, can play for time. Some of his delay tactics are more contrived than others and, once you spot the game being played — bungeeing back from a string of near kisses — it can take the edge off the romance.
“Beginning” is motored by two things in particular: hope for one, and honesty for another. We root for Laura and Danny not just because we like them, but because we have to believe that broken people can bounce back. We need to invest in the idea of recovery, all the more so right now, and this inceptive relationship becomes a lightning rod for wider, worldly concerns. Fly Davis’ detailed design, with its plant-print wallpaper and green paint patches over old greys, hints at new growth. Like Danny, we hold onto the hunch “that things do get better,” that good things happen to good people.
These two are nothing if not that. They’re honest with each other, sometimes to a fault, and, as they clean up the flat, binning old empties and pulling down decorations, they do the same with themselves, airing their baggage and dropping their guards. There’s nothing quite like a fresh start.