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David Eldridge

Royal Exchange Theatre Production

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

February 16-March 11, 2023; 1hr 50min, no interval

Gerard Kearns (Danny) and Erin Shanagher (Laura) in Beginning. All pics: Helen Murray
Gerard Kearns (Danny) and Erin Shanagher (Laura) in Beginning. All pics: Helen Murray

Funnily enough, I was trying to remember just the other day if I had ever given a production five stars, and if not, what it would take to do so. And here we are, easiest decision ever...

David Eldridge’s two-hander is glorious. Heart-stopping, hilarious, achingly moving – but don’t just sit there reading about it, book tickets now.

Long after the laughter fades, what stays with you are the silences. Great, long, exquisitely-judged breaks in the conversation between two lonely people; maddening waits for an answer that never comes; periods when there is just no need to talk; times when no-one can talk and do at the same time. Has anyone ever been able to talk while clearing up after a party, pretending they haven’t drunk too much and anticipating the hangover in the morning - let alone what is going to happen with the other person once they actually finish the job? Of course not.

I say silences, but the brilliant Erin Shanagher and Gerard Kearns are never silent. Their every gesture, every tic, every frown and eye-roll could be heard loud and clear. The degree of hunch in Danny’s shoulders, the sharpness with which Laura tucks her hair behind her ear, all are eloquent and properly meaningful.

The play takes place at the end of a housewarming party at Laura’s new flat in West Didsbury. Relocated from Crouch End in London to Manchester, the locations were greeted with knowing enthusiasm by the audience.

Danny, uninvited but brought by a sort-of friend of Laura’s, is the last to leave. They have been attracted to each other throughout the party, but now things are complicated and awkward. Both are staring down the road that leads to middle-age and, with broken relationships behind them and personal stories and agendas weighing them down, both are desperately lonely. We hear of dating app horrors and the pitfalls of Facebook friendships (the play was written before TikTok and Instagram took over the world). A wave of recognition went round the audience as Danny described his 92-year-old Nan’s happy hash-tagging – more than a few grandparent online stalkers recognising the trend.

The language here is not for the faint-hearted, but never feels wrong. The Royal Exchange now sends its audience a link to a “content warning” website page; a useful tool that tells us, among other things, that Beginning “contains adult themes including loneliness, relationships, fresh starts, first dates, self-sabotage, love and forgiveness”. All are beautifully exposed with the finest of touches.

Bryony Shanahan’s direction has award-winner written all over it, as does TK Hay’s set design, with every tiny detail supporting the naturalness of the relationship we are observing and cheering on.

The piece de resistance is the making and eating of fish finger sandwiches. Really. Kitchen foil lining the tin for the oven, ketchup on one, mayo on the other, carefully cut in half, on proper (clean) plates.

I don't think I have ever seen anyone eat a whole anything in silence on stage before.

Dan’s dogged determination to finish his, and Laura’s despair at precisely this, offers a masterclass.

Info and tickets here

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