Middle

In 2017, David Eldridge’s play Beginning dramatised an awkward conversation between two white, financially comfortable, urban-dwelling, adult Gen X-ers, caught in that time of emotional limbo that comes post flirt, pre-fuck.

it raises nothing new; just the same trite cliches seen a million times before.

For 100 minutes, the two strangers overshared. They whined about their struggle to find time for relationships whilst maintaining their career success, financial stability, and independence.

The play struck a chord with middle-class early-40s singletons everywhere. Taking a brief respite from Guardian Soulmates, they ran to see their own problems being played out on stage. An audience bearing the cross of a high disposable income ensured the play got a West End transfer and subsequent UK tour.

Beginning morphed from being one play into the first of a trilogy. The second chapter – Middle – would have been with us much sooner if it weren’t for Covid. One wonders if in the rush to maintain the momentum, the actual point has been lost. Middle is connected to Beginning at only the top level, with any potential originality or modernity stripped away.

A change of narrative

This is a trilogy on a theme, not three parts of the same story. Middle doesn’t tell us what happened next to Danny and Laura from Beginning. It does follow the same construct – a two-hander, played in real time – but gives another couple the chance to air their first-world problems.

This time we are eavesdropping on Maggie (Claire Rushbrook; still loved for Secrets and Lies), and Gary (Daniel Ryan, who gives great amiable neighbour / police officer in many a TV drama). They are two more spoilt children in adults clothing who believe their lives are more difficult than anybody understands.

They are the same dreary, self-pitying, navel-gazing, self-cast victims of life who raise the sort of self-reflective questions that are of little interest to anyone apart from themselves and their financially remunerated therapist.

In their late 40s, they are not much older than the protagonists in Beginning. Unlike their predecessors, Mags and Gaz are married. 15 years married. With an 8-year-old (unseen) brattish daughter.

It completely disregards today’s shifts in attitude towards both marriage and relationships, as laid out in the first play. So, it raises nothing new; just the same trite cliches seen a million times before. And marriage immediately excludes the millions who don’t relate to what they see as an outdated institution.

Take out the reference to an iPhone and this could be a couple and a play set anywhere in the last 50 years.

An unstructured jumble

We join the pair around 4:30am as they potter around the downstairs of their 6-bed house in posh Gants Hill. Maggie hasn’t been sleeping. Gary has been.

Maggie is heating milk in a pan. Gary asks why she doesn’t use the microwave.

Maggie says she hasn’t slept in weeks. Gary takes a pork joint out to defrost.

Maggie tells Gary she doesn’t love him. Gary asks if they have any fennel.

Maggie says they need to talk. Gary charges his mobile phone.

It may sound trivial, but this is a strong opening. It suggests what we are about to see may be like the worlds created by say a Bennett or a Churchill. Where conversations that pertain to be about the mundane reveal hidden truths and pain.

The suggestion doesn’t materialise. Though not through want of trying. Eldridge appears to want to use this approach to reality, but his writing can’t realise the intention.

We end up with an unstructured jumble of unrealistic styles. It is heavy on ‘monologue disguised as conversation’ (“remember the time we went to X, and you said Y”). And it’s packed with repetitious irrelevance (namechecking of Bros, Sinitta and Yazz as though trying to force relatability).

It’s messy script

For the best part of two hours, the speeches meander without focus. Issues are thrown out haphazard like a handful of ping-pong balls flying across the net.

There are things that happened when the couple first met. Things that took place just a few days before. And everything in between. Some feel little more than filler to ensure the running time is consistent with the first play.

Admittedly, conversations also meander in real life and we often lose focus when talking, especially during difficult conversations. But eventually the intended point is landed, even if not in the intended way.

It’s difficult to know what the point even is here. Maggie says they need to talk. She says this many times. Even when they have been talking for an hour and a half, she still says they need to talk. She says she has rehearsed what she wants to say but by the end of multiple ramblings, it’s still not clear what she is saying, or why now.

This isn’t messy conversation. It’s messy script.

For a first draft, it shows potential. It would be interesting to see it after a few rounds of editing.

Rushbrook and Ryan maintain a degree of believability in their characters. But they can only do so much. Now and again, they appear lost.

It’s unsurprising. They have been left to negotiate the arc of a journey that has an unclear destination, given only the most vague and conflicting of directions to follow.

Removal of originality

The topics in the conversation of the first play were relatively original for a drama. Though still tedious demonstrations of self-importance, they seemed very timely, very new. Switching from a relationship’s Beginning to a marriage’s Middle removes this originality.

In place of intangible emotions, the characters bring up the sorts of issues that have been stock fare since the days of Angie & Den and Jack & Vera.

It’s like couples therapy bingo. There’s the affair. The in-laws who never liked you. Procreation and coparenting. Abandonment and spousal blame. Look, here’s an ex to be jealous of. Is that an ambition from youth, unfulfilled and longed for? Here’s independence.

And let’s not forget sex. Sex drive. Sex fulfilment. Sex-periments. Porn. Nine-inch dildos.

And books.

This isn’t making the play relatable to more people. It’s just throwing out lots of mud and hoping enough sticks.

Removal of tension

Marriage also removes any dramatic tension. There is no ‘will they stay together’ in Middle. If we are reflecting reality, they just won’t.

Consider the stats.

    • There are more people single than married in the UK.

    • 70% of those married or civil partnered are over 45.

    • Around 200,000 weddings take place every year while about 100,000 divorces are finalized.

    • The average length of an opposite-sex marriage is currently 11 years, 9 months.

    • For a same-sex marriage it is 5.1 years.

In other words, marriage is not the common rite of passage it once was. To go from relationships to marriage is to take a wrong turning. The rarity of marriage – especially one lasting 15-years – makes the whole construct unrelatable to an audience today.

Frankly, we just don’t care.

An end to Middle

Eldridge says that, for him, the success of Middle would be if “a couple actually have an argument on the way home about whether they stay together or not.”

It’s entirely possible.

However, I think the argument wouldn’t be caused by the gamut of topics jammed into the play. More likely it would come from one partner questioning the other’s judgement if they thought for a moment that the play reflected reality or offered anything new.

Given the circumstances, it would be perfectly acceptable – and imminently sensible – if the plans to make this a trilogy were quickly revised.

It would only take a change in title, and we could happily bring an end to Middle by making Middle End.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

Dorfman Theatre

Middle

★★
Lyttelton Theatre

The Corn is Green

★★
National Theatre

Hamlet

★★★★
Lyttleton Theatre

Wuthering Heights

★★★
Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Manor

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The Blurb

The new play from the writer and director of our five-star hit Beginning. Every relationship reaches a crossroad some time. As dawn breaks, Maggie is heating some milk and Gary wonders what she’s doing out of bed. Maybe it’s time for an honest conversation – but how much honesty can this marriage take? Following the sold-out runs of Beginning at the National Theatre and in the West End, writer David Eldridge and director Polly Findlay reunite for this raw, touching and funny show.

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