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'Middle' review — David Eldridge's marital drama is sincere but too conservative

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

In 2017, David Eldridge premiered his heartfelt two-hander Beginning at the National Theatre: a real-time, 100-minute play following a man and woman in their thirties who are negotiating a possible hook-up – and perhaps something more. Now, he’s back with the second instalment of this trilogy, Middle, featuring a new pair who are 10 years older and facing a different sort of life and relationship crisis.

Once again, Polly Findlay takes on the directorial challenge of a sustained 100-minute piece, and there are plenty of echoes for those who saw and loved Beginning. Crouch End pops up again, there’s another excruciating dance sequence, and Eldridge again mixes very specific cultural references with wider ideas around career, family, class, romance and loneliness.

This time, the action opens in the early hours of the morning with Maggie telling husband Gary that she doesn’t love him anymore. His immediate, doggedly British response is to put the kettle on. Maggie attempts to pin him down for a serious discussion, but he keeps trying to wriggle off the hook, constantly changing the subject or fixating on small details.

When Maggie admits there might be someone else, he’s more incensed that they ate sushi, which she hates, and that she made this other man a cup of tea. But soon both are admitting that their picture-perfect life – which includes a six-bedroom house in Essex complete with lofty ceilings and a kitchen island (detailed design by Fly Davis), and a daughter at a posh prep school – has been masking real pain.

City Boy Gary is miserable at work, but feels pressured to keep making money. Maggie, who suffered a series of miscarriages and was ambivalent about parenthood, felt he abandoned her with their daughter Annabelle – who now prefers him, since he spoils her and forces Maggie to be strict. Motherhood, she freely admits, is “fucking hard”, and you can feel very lonely even if you’re not on your own.

The pair proceed to rake over every element of their relationship, including their dwindling sex life, their extended family and the differences in their backgrounds. Maggie is university educated and once dreamed of working in the media, while working-class Gary is proud that he’s given his daughter more than he ever had.

Though played with great commitment by Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan, this detailed recapping feels forced – for the audience’s benefit, rather than theirs. Also, I couldn’t quite get a handle on Gary as a character: sometimes he’s pure bloke-y stereotype (pub, football, sex, no emotional range), but then Eldridge gives him some profound and articulate lines that suggest the opposite.

Additionally, the tonal mix doesn’t work as well as it did in the more playful Beginning. We’re frequently encouraged to chuckle at the brash one-liners, but in the midst of real devastation, and some of those lines – like Maggie boasting her cultured new pal has read the whole shortlist for the William Hill Book of the Year prize – turn the characters themselves into punchlines, which I’m not sure Eldridge intended.

However, he does gift Rushbrook a gorgeous monologue about the childhood roots of her discontent, and there are some arresting moments in Findlay’s thoughtful production that are purely physical. After Gary injures his hand, he checks his phone to see what he should do and silently elevates it – a brilliant comment on our reliance on Dr Internet.

More poignantly, when Maggie is in distress she automatically reaches for Gary, then lets him go and kills the moment by getting out the hoover. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their push-pull dynamic, where she feels safe with him but also stuck in a rut, while he is drawn to protect her but doesn’t know what to do otherwise.

But, though sincere, Eldridge’s portrait feels too conservative and inconsequential. It basically boils down to a white, straight couple with a conventional family life, who are grappling with problems that many viewers could only dream of – like that six-bedroom house. I did feel invested in whether Maggie and Gary are in a midlife crisis, or just in the middle of their lives together, but only to a middling degree.

Middle is at the National Theatre to 18 June.

Photo credit: Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan (Photo by Johan Persson)

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