David Eldridge’s tale of the awkwardness of finding new love dazzles at The Exchange, treating audiences to an unrelenting experience full of realism and silence.
I’ll hold my hands up from the off: I’m not an avid theatre-goer. That’s not because I dislike the medium. Far from it. It’s just not something that can often fit in the schedule of a student being weighed down by the looming spectre of university.
And yet, last Thursday, I found myself seated in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, the first time I’d visited the venue. Without knowing much about what was going to happen, I readied myself for a performance of “Beginning”, penned by David Eldridge and starring Erin Shanagher and Gerard Kearns.
The story chronicles that most ordinary of settings: a house party winding down. Shanagher’s ‘Laura’ and Kearns’ ‘Danny’ are the last two remaining people and, for two hours, the audience is treated to an exploration into how these characters, these strangers, can form a deep connection.
It’s a love story, but one that cuts through the expected cheese of a romcom and focuses on a startling amount of reality. The setting helps enhance this experience. Performed in the Round at the Exchange, the audience is placed on the stage, instantly made an intimate part of the story.
For two hours, you’re there with Laura and Danny, flies on the wall of this imaginary apartment kitchen. There aren’t any intervals and no interrupting characters, meaning you get to watch the couple grow at the same time as they’re learning one another’s idiosyncrasies.
The way Laura instinctively tucks her hair behind her ear whenever she looks at her counterpart for long enough. The way Danny’s laugh is high-pitched and care-free, a giggle more than a chortle. By the time the two hours are up, you know who these characters are. You form as much a connection with them as they’re trying to do.
The unrelenting realism of the story is almost startling. Set in 2015, there are the expected, hopeful comments about a unified Europe and a woman on the brink of the Presidency. The characters celebrate every absurd notion that links them, from a mutual love of scotch eggs to their derision of the ‘friend’ that set them up in the first place.
Never have I known silence to be utilised so effectively as it was in ‘Beginning’. As with any first date, neither person can find things to say all the time, meaning there are stretches of nothingness every few minutes. Being so close to the stage, the audience is made to suffer through each pause, desperately wanting it to end, before Danny invariably comments on how lovely the place is for the fifth time that night.
There are drawbacks to the Exchange. Its circular stage means that, at times, one of the characters would be giving a haunting soliloquy, only for their backs to be facing you for the entire speech. Of course, it’s balanced, and you’ll get another moment where you can look directly into their eyes, whilst the opposite portion of the audience gets to study the fabric of the back of their shirts.
That’s me being overly critical and it’s solely born out of wanting to cherish every single moment of the production. You’re invited to watch these two people as they dance around starting a relationship, both of them haunted by the ghosts of their past. You’re unravelling the layers that make them, revealing a darker story than perhaps you’re expecting, but one that’s all the more engaging for it.
There’s a particular scene where Danny and Laura are awkwardly dancing around the kitchen that had a huge smile on my face because, by then, I was falling in love with them just as they were doing. That’s down to the writing, but also the charismatic performances by the two leads. Performances that make you never want the play to end.
Sadly, once the two hours are up, you have to say goodbye to Danny and Laura. And now the play itself has finished its run at the Exchange. The good news is that ‘Beginning’ is the start of a trilogy of plays and, although ‘Middle’ and ‘End’ tell the stories of new characters, if Eldridge is able to capture the unbridled magic once again, then that’s more than enough reason to start coming to the theatre more often.