Beginning review: Beautifully measured tale of love in a time of social media

Eileen Walsh and Marty Rea give exquisite performances in David Eldridge’s play

BEGINNING

Gate Theatre, Dublin
★★★★★
Among the more poignant micronarratives to emerge in our age are the personal ads known as Missed Connection. Tales of instant attraction in fleeting circumstance, they suggest that even in a densely populated, fast-moving, hyperconnected city (or precisely because of it) it's almost impossible to meet anyone.

David Eldridge’s excellent play about love in a time of social media, from 2017, has a stubbornly fixed location – a London apartment, at the tail end of a party, where the action unfurls in minute-ticking real time – yet the connection between its two middle-aged characters seems just as fragile.

With her arm draped across a sofa, Eileen Walsh’s effervescent host, Laura, gives her last remaining guest a come-hither look. For some reason Marty Rea’s shy, smiling Danny stays thither, clinging to a beer bottle as if it were a tiny shield. “I’ve got no radar,” he guffaws in a flat Essex accent. Oh, Danny, you’re such a blip.

Here they are, then, two magnificent performances of people stuck in the middle of life, too preoccupied with how it will end to even dare beginning

Following a night of intense flirting this private after-party will amount either to a slow-motion car wreck of desire or to an extended, chaste kind of foreplay. But the stakes, we gradually discover, are high for both of them. “Everyone has a story at our age,” Laura tells Danny as they negotiate complex romantic histories and radically different circumstances in life. She is a successful career woman; he is a divorced father, broke and living at home with his mum.

It says something about the director Marc Atkinson’s beautifully measured production that, although you are not at all sure if they will fall in love with each other, you are destined to fall in love with them, two fun, idiosyncratic, exquisitely lonely souls.

That owes much to the nanodetail of Walsh and Rea's marvellous performances, and the course of the evening we spend with them. The airtight naturalism of the production, given a pleasingly detailed set by Sarah Bacon and subtly shifting lights by Sinéad McKenna, is actually quite deceptive. The sustained and direct intimacy of Beginning, during which the characters talk, tidy up, dance and even cook, could work only in a theatre.

Eldridge uses the ebb and flow of their conversation to lightly explore the anxieties of our tech-assisted age. (There may be no line quite as funny, or quite as sad, as Rea’s admission, “I wish I’d met you online. Everything would be so much easier.”)

Similarly, Atkinson and his cast find striking meaning in subtle gestures. Take the way Rea’s marvellously blokey dancing cedes to Walsh’s bravura turn – cocooned inside a Bros song – which unwittingly excludes him; or the moment either of them raise their hands with a heartbreakingly honest admission.

The question that guides the play also nudges at the small matter of life itself: where is all this going? At one affecting point Walsh stretches her hand towards Rea, not so much to beckon him as to repaint his character. Laura wishes for a future, far more conservative than her politics, as simple as it is impossible to guarantee. Rea, bruised and bowed by a luckless past, asks for assurances that can never be given. Here they are, then, two magnificent performances of people stuck in the middle of life, too preoccupied with how it will end to even dare beginning. You feel for them. Only connect…

Runs until Saturday, April 20th

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