Review of Beginning at Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Laura and Danny lock eyes across the room at a house party, and when the last guests have all left, there they are. Just the two of them – with all the empty bottles, plates of leftovers, and a fresh cigarette burn on the carpet.
David Eldridge’s ‘Beginning’ starts at the tail end of a long night, and slap bang in the middle of two people’s lives.
Danny, in his early forties is back living with his mum in Prestwich, sleeping in his childhood bedroom. Laura has just persuaded him not to get a taxi home.
It was Laura’s party – and her apartment, situated in South Manchester’s “pesto triangle”, is an estate agent’s dream. Big sofa, wine fridge, double sink, and a huge kitchen island unit – around which Laura and Danny circle as they become acquainted.
Laura’s full-colour foliage-patterned jumpsuit is in marked contrast to Danny’s monochrome ‘smart casual’ shirt and trousers. Despite a shared love of scotch eggs, they seem so very different.
She makes it clear what she wants from Danny and seems determined to get it. He is not so sure and nervily diverts any talk of them becoming an ‘us’, however casually, on to other topics.
One of the strengths of Eldridge’s play is how it conjures up a touching gaucheness and vulnerability, more usually associated with young love, while layering on top the battle-hardened cautiousness of two adults heading towards middle age.
Some of that manifests itself in their awkward physical navigation of one another within that domestic space. Flirtation skittishly infiltrates their efforts to tidy away the party detritus, and Laura’s playful twirling of a pair of Marigolds (in time to a Bros song) is pure courtship display.
As Laura and Danny gradually reveal more of themselves, and drop the occasional emotional bombshell, the stakes suddenly feel higher. Next steps are unsteadily negotiated, and even holding hands feels hard won.
Seemingly intent on ensuring the production does not run out of road, designer TK Hay has generously tarmacked the stage, and added a pair of streetlights. According to the programme notes, it is an allusion to the characters being ‘in transit’. To an extent I get that, but it also brings a slight chill into Laura’s cosy home – a reminder of a world outside those walls, and that these are two lives among many in the harsh glare of city life.
“I feel quite exposed”, says Gerard Kearns’ Danny, as the conversation, not for the first time, turns deep – and for Kearns and Erin Shanagher (Laura) there is nowhere to hide on that in-the-round stage. Their two beautifully judged (and carefully sustained) performances skilfully flesh out two complex characters while also managing to develop a growing sense of connection between them. It’s totally absorbing, frustratingly messy, and all too believable.
Banter and boisterous humour pepper Eldridge’s writing, but he is also unafraid of emotion. Most powerfully, as his two characters share their stories, their words lay bare the pain of loneliness, a fear of being hurt, and the unbearable weight of lives unfulfilled.
Bryony Shanahan’s quietly assured direction creates space to take a moment now and then, while keeping a close eye on pacing – and Zoe Spurr’s warm pools of light expand and contract as Danny and Laura run hot and cold.
What’s perhaps surprising is how complete it all feels. After all, this is only a ‘Beginning’, and Eldridge’s play leaves us to guess how things pan out.
Earlier, when Danny asks Laura, “do you believe in love at first sight?”, there’s a long awkward silence. There are no guarantees – they know that, and we know that.
As evening dissolves into morning, they take a chance – and somehow that’s enough.
Performance seen on 22 February 2023.
Beginning runs at Royal Exchange from 16 February – 11 March 2023.
Prices – tickets start at £10 for banquette seats, a limited number of £7 Under 30s and Pay What You Decide tickets are also available.
Images by Helen Murray