Writer: David Eldridge
Director: Polly Findlay
What does the end of love look like and how do you know when it’s really over? David Eldridge’s latest play Middle premiering in the National Theatre’s Dorfman space, opens with Maggie telling husband Gary almost in her first breath that she doesn’t love him anymore, instantly placing the audience in the middle of a conversation between two middle-aged people who are no longer in the first flush of romance but not quite at a parting of ways. What is set to be a trilogy of works that started with Beginning in 2017, Eldridge’s play certainly makes its title work on multiple levels.
Approaching her 50th birthday, Maggie realises her life hasn’t turned out as she hoped. Trapped in her role as wife and mother, feeling adrift and lonely, she craves a connection to the woman she used to be, full of hopes and promise. An unexpected early morning conversation with husband Gary brings her feelings to the surface as the couple try to come to terms with who they have become and confront the possibility of a different life.
Eldridge’s 100-minute play tells its story in a single unbroken scene, a continuous conversation between two people feeling their way towards a better understanding of themselves and each other. Starting with a dramatic statement from which the subsequent unravelling of a 12-year marriage unfolds, Eldridge’s writing focuses on the circularity of conversation – sometimes natural, sometimes a little chaotic. He also presents the slipperiness of human interaction as his characters both evade deeper reflection before a series of revelations, memories and direct challenges force them to rethink their position, something which Eldridge conveys well. Maggie and Gary shift from an immovable certainty about who they are to opening themselves to their partner’s perspective.
Elements of it, however, feel contrived, as though Eldridge started with a bullet-point list of what a stale middle-aged, middle-class marriage must look like and turned that into a conversational tick list also reflected in the programme essays. Maggie resents giving up her life to raise their 8-year-old daughter Annabelle, the loneliness of motherhood and spousal neglect while dreaming of intellectual conversations and having agency again. On more than one occasion Gary blames Maggie’s hormones – either periods or the onset of menopause – for her emotional behaviour, a tiresome device that gets cheap laughs but fails to serve the character or the story. He also resents being the breadwinner, trying to keep up in his city job and giving his daughter all the things he didn’t have while complaining several times about their sex life. Perhaps these are clichés for a reason, but they are not dramatically satisfying traits.
With director Polly Findlay at the helm who has considerable experience and skill in shaping two-handers like A Number, Middle just about stays the course, holding the audience’s attention as it starts to take shape with many compelling exchanges. The show struggles sometimes with the balance between comedy and domestic tragedy, asking us to laugh at Maggie’s heartfelt middle-class pretentions and moments later to empathise with the gravity of the emptiness she experiences, making for an awkward transition.
Claire Rushbrook is superb as Maggie, giving a contained and controlled performance, allowing her character a reality that is often deeply affecting. And while there are marked inconsistencies in Eldridge’s writing about whether she intends to end the marriage, Rushbrook’s stillness conveys layers of feeling and meaning that add considerably to the production. Daniel Ryan as Gary has the short straw for much of the show, only required to selfishly sulk with an unexplored possibility of violence, but in the final third Ryan is able to burrow beneath the surface a little more to find a greater depth in Gary’s many hurts.
There is a lot of backstory in Middle that comes out in conversation, some of it a surprise to a couple who would presumably know each other’s stories after more than a decade together, and there is a repetitiveness that starts to creep in as dawn rises in Fly Davis kitchen-living room set. But these are offset by Findlay’s tight control and the central performances. With another chapter to come in Eldridge’s three-play cycle, Middle is appropriately middling.
Runs until 18 June 2022