We didn’t see David Eldridge’s Beginning, the first of his trilogy of love and relationships, that premiered at the National Theatre in 2017. Whether this put us at a disadvantage for seeing Middle, the second in the trilogy, I don’t know. Presumably there’ll be an End too, but that’s a post for a different day.
Middle is a two-hander set in a modern luxury kitchen diner. Maggie and Gary have been together for sixteen years now; he works hard in a job he hates but has a great income, which allowed them to buy this six-bedroomed home. She also works hard at a job that is a disappointment to her. They have a daughter, Annabelle, whom he indulges and she disciplines, which is a cause of conflict. When he’s not at work, he’s having a few drinks at the pub, or watching West Ham. She’s very lonely, and he hasn’t got a clue. And the play starts with Maggie telling Gary that she doesn’t love him anymore.
It’s the middle of the night (middle again) and she can’t sleep. Apparently, she hasn’t slept properly in ages. She gets up to make a cup of warm milk. He, realising she’s up, gets up to nip to the loo and then comes downstairs to see if she’s ok. They’re very concerned not to disturb Annabelle. A hundred or so minutes later, their life together has been thoroughly explored, secrets revealed, and dreams shattered.
Despite some moments of humour – and some of them are shockingly funny – this comes across as an extremely sad play. Neither of them has the remotest wish to hurt the other, but they do. And there appears to be nothing that either of them can do to save the situation. It feels bleak and hopeless. And even though there is a resolution of sorts at the end – well, I didn’t believe anything was going to change. The writing, and Polly Findlay’s direction, are intense, moody and dark. The bitterness of their situation creates a stark contrast to the modern comfort that surrounds them. Annabelle’s playbox particularly stands out as a symbol of the brightness and happiness that should be present, but is only a façade.
Claire Rushbrook is excellent as Maggie, a brooding, discontented presence who’s more sad than angry, trying to explain her position to her husband who gave up listening long ago. She drifts uncertainly from room to room, unable to focus on the future or the present, and resentful of much of the past. Gary is normally played by Daniel Ryan, but for our performance his understudy Mark Middleton took the role; I don’t know how much notice he had, but it’s a huge part – Gary is never off stage – and he did a terrific job. He played Gary as a rather whiny chap of few needs and simple pleasures; taking his wife for granted but genuinely wanting to put things right when his failures have been exposed.
Maggie maintains throughout that the first five years of their relationship was great; they had fun, they were successful, they did everything they wanted, and life was perfect together. Therefore I found it hard to believe that when she does her big confession to Gary about her disappointment in not getting her dream job, and her resentment against the friend who did, that she hadn’t told him that before. They had a great relationship. She would have told him. He would have empathised and supported her. This doesn’t feel believable to me.
Mrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, didn’t believe that the character of Gary, with everything we know about him, could hold down for so many years the city job that brings in big bucks. She can’t see how he would have cut the mustard over that time. My other slight problem with the play is that I could never quite get a grasp of its purpose. It’s a slice of life, certainly, and depicts the kind of relationship problems that could beset anyone in the middle period of their lives together. But I’m not sure how it sheds light for others. I found it a very negative experience, very downbeat, and (dare I say it) self-indulgently sad. Happy to accept that I’m probably in the minority here. Middle continues at the Dorfman until 18th June.
Production photos by Johan Persson