Beginning review – ‘comfortable, emotionally-streamlined and ideologically safe’

John Livesey is left cold by a conservative if accomplished transfer

Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton in Beginning credit: Manuel Harlan

Girl meets Boy: a narrative so hackneyed it’s earned its very own idiomatic cliché. We’ve heard this story so often – have it plummed into us more times a day than we are likely to actually experience the real thing in our lifetimes- and yet that fateful first interaction still seems to be an object of fascination that never loses its artistic appeal. Indeed, this is the story David Eldridge has decided to take up with his new play Beginning, now showing at the Ambassador’s Theatre, London, after a transfer from the National.

Beginning centres around Laura and Danny, two single twenty or thirty-somethings who meet at a party in Laura’s flat. When the play starts, the party is over. Danny has decided not to get a Taxi and it’s clear that Laura wants him to make a move. They’re both drunk but something stops them from getting it on. Instead they end up talking: for 90 minutes to be specific. Only at the very end do we see their desire manifested in a more physical way. This show is a slow-burner, its thrill relying not on erotic rush but on the constant deferral of consummation.

Beginning opens with the image of its lead actress and actor standing quiet and alone, locked in eachother’s gaze. It is not a tableau. Albeit still, it is an image alive with feeling. This is the meet-cute, the glance of love-at-first-sight, the eponymous ‘Beginning’. With their light swaying and heavy breathing, we get a sense of the prospective couple’s drunken awkwardness, their inability to speak their feelings, their lurking sense of where the night is headed. With barely any movement, this picture neatly summarises all of the action to follow. It is clever and affecting. However, one can’t help feeling that its intelligence, its ability to capture so much, brings us back to a fundamental, and somewhat worrying question. What is the point of all this? If girl meets boy can be summed up in one moment, why is there anything more to say?

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Despite charismatic and wonderfully real performances from Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton, this is my central problem with this play. The set is beautifully detailed, with party streamers, empty bottles, forgotten coats and an ambient lighting that perfectly recreates the mood of the after-party. In its favor, the writing is also witty and cleverly observed. However, despite all this dressing, you come away with a sense that you’ve gained very little: this production lacks any meaningful substance.

Of course, one could point to the interesting gender politics for counter-argument. Danny seems to be a man caught in the problems of modern masculinity, at once defending a sexist friend but also unwilling to initiate a sexual encounter, embarrassed by Laura having to ask him for a kiss. Laura, meanwhile, is a modern woman – sexually forward, aware of what she wants, unafraid of telling an unknown man exactly how she feels. In addition, there is some attempt to discuss class. Danny lives at home with his mum and his Nan whilst Laura can afford a 500k Crouch-End apartment. But even then the socio-economic differences between the two are too thin to allow for any really incisive commentary. There are lazy references to being Labour voters and to Owen Jones’ twitter (ironically, Jones himself was sat a few rows in front of me and chortled loudly at this) but ultimately, there isn’t much to distinguish the play from any other #relatable modern romance.

Under Rufus Norris tenure, the National has put on multiple shows involved in pushing the possibilities of form and content. Whilst this play is perfectly nice, it does neither of these things. Nor does it ever manage to whip up much intrigue to add to such a predictable plotline. Overall, we are left with a comfortable, emotionally-streamlined and ideologically safe show about a heterosexual, white, middle-class, London-based couple. Whoopdidoo! I’d much rather see the ‘beginning’ of something new but for now it seems Girl meets Boy is here to stay.

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