Review: Middle, Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre ★★★★☆

by Jim Keaveney

David Eldridge returns to the National Theatre with part two in his unplanned trilogy of plays. Where the Beginning saw a couple navigating the beginning of a relationship, Middle, unsurprisingly, sees a couple navigating the middle of their relationship.

Played again in real time over the course of 100 minutes, the time marked by a clock on the wall of Fly Davis’s detailed set, encompassing a kitchen and living room in the couple’s six-bedroom Essex home that they share with their daughter Annabelle. Davis is returning following her work on Beginning, as does director Polly Findlay, seeking to replicate the surprise success of Beginning.

Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan. Photo: Johan Persson

We meet Maggie (Claire Rushbrook) at 4:30 in the morning – unable to sleep, she is in the kitchen heating milk. As she finishes she is joined by her husband Gary (Daniel Ryan) who has been woken by her stirrings. Within moments she has dropped the kind of bombshell normally saved for the climax of a production; she no longer loves him.

Eldridge gives himself a narrative challenge by placing such a moment so early in a two-handed play – how do you trace the narrative of the couple’s relationship to that moment without a catalyst third character to whom they can explain their shared history. It is perhaps the play’s main problem but it is navigated  well, with the couple explaining their differing understanding of their past, though there are occasional moments where it doesn’t seem clear why either would explain particular pieces of their past.

Daniel Ryan. Photo: Johan Persson

The play may focus on the middle of their relationship but there are other ‘middles’ at play; it is the middle of the night, they are in their middle-age, both in their late-40’s, and they are middle-class; she was always middle-class but he has used his City career to climb out of poverty and into affluence. That change in social status has shaped how Gary has approached fatherhood, seeking to give their daughter everything he didn’t have as a child. It is one of their main tensions; he says yes, she says no.

Both Ryan and Rushbrook give nuanced performances, slowly revealing the reasons why neither partner is happy, but it is Ryan who stands out with an incredibly authentic, tender portrait of a man who, despite perhaps on first impression being a simple man with simple pleasures, actually holds deep emotions. You feel that he is living and breathing the role as he does all he can to hold his marriage, and his life, together.
Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan. Photo: Johan Persson
Rushbrook does occasionally stray towards being sincere to the point of being unbelievable, particularly when Maggie speaks lovingly about the qualities of John, the other man she has met, a policeman who reads sports novels and listens to Classic FM. Though it is clear that Eldridge is leaning towards cringe comedy in these moments, they are played too straight in comparison to the rest of the piece. And it’s not clear from the rest of the characterisation why Maggie would go into such detail about her relationship with John to her husband.
But those moments are relatively few and subtract little from the rest of the piece, which is full of pathos and wit. It is incredibly funny throughout – there is no doubt that Eldridge has an eye for a well turned punchline – but he also crafts two touching moments of embrace between the couple, suggesting hope that they may emerge from what Gary calls their deep rut. After all, this is only the middle, not beginning or an ending.

Middle is at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre until 18 June

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim