Middle review: David Eldridge play explores the mundanity of married life

Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan give nuanced performances as a married couple on the brink of splitting, but the script feels exposition-heavy

Isobel Lewis
Thursday 05 May 2022 15:15
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<p>Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan in ‘Middle'</p>

Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan in ‘Middle'

If 2017’s Beginning, the first play in David Eldridge’s relationships triptych, was about the sparky sexual attraction when two singles first meet, its follow-up Middle is more about the stifling ennui of marital life. As in Beginning, it’s still the early hours of the morning and we’re once again in a kitchen, but this time it’s stress preventing Maggie (Claire Rushbrook) from sleeping. No bold statements of lust are made – at least not by her. Instead, she tells husband Gary (Daniel Ryan) that she doesn’t love him anymore, and that she hasn’t wanted to have sex with him for a long time. Ouch.

As a couple who have never expressed their boredom and loneliness, Rushbrook and Ryan give wonderfully nuanced performances, as they slowly peel back the layers to reveal deep-rooted pain and resentment. There’s a constant lump in Rushbrook’s throat, her voice always two words away from breaking down completely. But she is the one making the decision: he’d accepted a life of “plodding along”. In times of upset, he sheaths himself in a carapace of “lad bants” and cheesy cliches. Yet Ryan’s performance posits Gary as the more vulnerable of the pair. “Don’t I have feelings? Or am I just a geezer?” he pleads without his voice wavering, the My Little Ponys that surround him only highlighting the futility of his situation

As in Beginning, the action (or, more accurately, the lack of action) on stage plays out in real time. We’re watching two people talking, yet director Polly Findlay keeps things from feeling static as the couple anxiously pace and swirl around the room. The play swings between extremely funny (usually Gary), and extremely sad (usually Maggie).

The issues with the script lie less with this stark contrast than the heavy exposition. For Mags, this conversation is a chance to say the things she’s been keeping in for 16 years. That they’ve never discussed these issues before is clearly the source of the pair’s problem, but the script can feel like a who’s who of marital issues, with mentions of sort-of affairs, fertility, family dynamics and careers are rattled off with a lack of subtlety.

Daniel Ryan in ‘Middle'

Eldridge’s mission statement (that romance fades when you’ve been married for nearly two decades) permeates throughout not just the script, but Fly Davis’s design. Gary wanders around in his West Ham pyjamas, while Maggie sports a nightie and floral dressing gown. You can tell the pair have spent a lot of money to create the middle-class Essex home they think they should want – all classic finishes, modern contraptions and smooth close drawers.

As dawn begins to peek through the kitchen blinds, both everything and nothing has changed. Maggie’s words hang in the air; the revelation that she can’t leave Gary is a gut punch. Still, you’re probably not expecting grand conclusions from Eldridge’s play – we didn’t get it in Beginning, and presumably won’t in the yet-to-be-announced final chapter either. For Maggie, this bit is “the beginning of the end”, but for Gary, the middle is just the middle, the bit you get through because you have to.

‘Middle’ runs at the National Theatre, Dorfman until 18 June

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