National Theatre, Dorfman – until 18 June 2022
Ah, middle age! Waists spreading outwards, options contracting, marriage all too familiar, parents getting older fast and children taking their time about it. Media culture nags you, especially if you’re a woman, to be your best, cultivate peak “wellness” and treat your “mental health” like a Ming vase. And just as the nation becomes fixated on the idea of menopause as a living nightmare, and all women of a dignified age doomed without chemicals, along comes clever David Eldridge with this two-hander.
It opens at 4.30am in a six-bedroom Essex house, with Maggie in her nightie informing poor Barry (who has only got up for a piss) that she doesn’t love him any more. Various clues are in the programme if you can face it: essays on male workaholism and stress, the isolation of new Mums, and marriages going stale.
On cue, once Barry has got his bearings a bit Maggie explains further: she doesn’t really get on with their eight-year-old daughter, suffered agonies of loneliness in five years as a full time Mum since she was bored by all the other Mums. Going back to work hasn’t helped much because she once dreamed, after “uni”, of a job in telly or film, and her friend got to be a Carlton TV runner and she just went into HR but “I am so much more than that”. Oh, and by the way, she didn’t enjoy that Valentine weekend they just had, or the two bouts of sex. News which upsets Barry almost as much as the dearth of her love. He thought it was a good weekend.
Eldridge is an accomplished writer, and both actors are magnificent: Claire Rushbrook with her broad handsome sorrowful face and Daniel Ryan stocky and steady, a slightly geezerish city-boy feeling his age and adoring his little princess of a daughter. She – it transpires – has always felt herself a cut above him, cuddly though he is, because she grew up in a house with Radio 4, whereas he had a crowded council house and Dad on the bins.
Now it seems she has met a soulmate called John, albeit still chastely, with whom she can talk and talk: John listens to Classic FM and has “read all the books on the William Hill sports book of the year shortlist… He’s from Royal Tunbridge Wells!”. The actual husbandly crockery smashing occurs (it’s only pottery, and he sweeps up afterwards) because she breaks the news that she made John a cup of tea in the house while Barry was out and John touched a golf club – “He had – a swing with my sand iron???!!”
The hilarity that meets this – and other lines denoting middle-Essex aspiration – sometimes made me seriously uncomfortable, in a way that occurs when an NT Dorfman two-hander audience giggles at people unlikely to go to an NT Dorfman two-hander (I am the lone critic who found London Road unbearably patronising).
And that feeling is a shame, because Polly Findlay’s direction is deft and swift, and purely as individuals both characters, as played here, are heartbreakingly real. Her discontents are common ones, her failure to take a grip on them and separate fantasy from commonsense and inventiveness with her life is maddening but sympathetic. Ryan’s Barry is absolutely magnificent in his depiction of man as seemingly a simpler organism than woman, one who can live for the moment on his small family pleasures and getting the crackling right on the pork dinner he cooks. But a final admission that he is in the doldrums too is a showstopping cry of sincerity. “I’m lonely. I’m bored. I feel shit about myself. And it takes a lot of bollocks to admit that.”
So it’s interesting, and I would have liked to see these same characters, and same actors, in a play with more event and jeopardy. The sort of situation Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams – or indeed a good TV soap – might have put them in. It is a sketch, a watercolour on the landing of middle life: sensitive, accomplished but not likely to stop you in your tracks.
Www.nationaltheatre.org.uk To 18 june