At first glance, David Eldridge’s Beginning seems like it would be more suited to an intimate studio theatre than the expansive, in-the-round main stage at the Royal Exchange – a space that has previously played host to revolving catwalks (Persuasion), torrential rain (The Crucible) and mineable layers of coal (Husbands and Sons). Eldridge’s two-hander may seem simple and unassuming by comparison, but there’s much more to this production than first meets the eye.
Set in the aftermath of a housewarming party, characters Laura (Erin Shanagher) and Danny (Gerard Kearns) are left behind finishing their drinks and an intriguing ‘will-they-won’t-they’ interaction starts to unfold. Endearingly awkward, Danny – with his ketchup-stained shirt and inability to open a bottle of wine – foils and frustrates impatient, tightly wound Laura, whose confident advances are belied by her nervous habits of tucking her hair behind her ears and touching the neckline of her top.
The tension between the two results in plenty of comic moments, as Danny attempts to deflect Laura’s attentions. Their conversation – full of crossed wires, knowing references to Manchester and amusingly mundane exchanges about Scotch eggs and internet dating – disarms the audience with humour, before hitting home with painfully poignant observations on loneliness, love and loss.
Shanagher and Kearns cover both comic and tragic ground with ease, drawing the audience in with both their entertaining banter and long, uncomfortable silences. At nearly two hours without an interval, the focus and stamina required for this play is immense and both cast and director Bryony Shanahan do an excellent job of pacing the action.
Laura’s flat is created in realistic detail, with trendy mid-century modern furniture and kitchen units that include a working sink and fridge; the openness of the space exposes the actors, heightening the vulnerability of the characters. When the play begins, the counter tops and tables are covered in dirty plates, glasses and empty bottles –Danny insists on tidying this up before anything can happen between them, a literal purification of their respective complicated pasts to create a clean slate for the future.
Beginning fascinates because it starts as a believable interaction between two strangers who are attracted to each other, and becomes a surreally intense exchange as they live out an entire relationship over the course of one night, laying themselves bare to the audience and each other.
Beginning is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 16 February to 11 March 2023.