Sunday 20 October 2019

Beginning at The Gate: Seductive performances in this triumph of the ordinary


Gate Theatre, Dublin Until April 20

Acting craft: Eileen Walsh and Marty Rea play Laura and Danny in Beginning. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Acting craft: Eileen Walsh and Marty Rea play Laura and Danny in Beginning. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Katy Hayes

Unfolding in real time over an hour and 40 minutes, the audacity of British playwright David Eldridge's play is its ordinariness. It is a familiar scenario: the end of a party, and the female hostess and a single male guest are left alone after the last taxi has departed. They are both, in different ways, desperate. Laura, at 38, is almost out of her mind with desire for a baby. Danny, at 42, has a broken marriage, is back living with his mum, and has lost contact with his seven-year-old daughter.

This is a mating dance, set in 2015. In the background of this real-life encounter hovers the internet-dating sites and the showcasing of happy families on Facebook. The play is, in part, a real-life fightback against the invasion of romance by the online world. Laura and Danny circle each other like well-behaved animals, both decent, both ordinary. She is a managing director and a little posh. He is more working-class and rough hewn. At first it appears she just wants a stud to facilitate a pregnancy. He is a sensitive man; that's not his style.

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The two characters are utterly normal. They aren't odd or twitchy, neither monsters nor mice. They are like lots of people you would know, men and women engaging with each other as equals. The play is very funny, but not in the sense of sophisticated gags or one-liners; the humour derives entirely from the cringe-inducing awkwardness of people making themselves vulnerable to each other.

The play premièred at the British National Theatre in the Dorfman in 2017 and transferred soon after to the West End. On paper, it looks a bit inconsequential and lacking in big dramatic moments or major themes; premièring it was a courageous move. It is one of those works that is entirely reliant on the performances to make the drama effective.

Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh rise to the task splendidly with powerhouse displays of acting craft. Marc Atkinson's confident direction creates the space for these two detailed, unhurried performances. Sarah Bacon's setting, a one-bed apartment in London's Crouch End, is as meticulously realistic as the dialogue. A working clock on the wall keeps careful real-time.

Part of the appeal of this show is how universally relatable it is. As humans, we have all experienced this messy seduction thing, mostly many times, with both happy and unhappy outcomes. Eldridge's script is like a theatrical magnifying glass, trained on this core human activity. But the real seducing is done by the actors, who carry the night superbly.


Episodic play has a bad hair day

Split Ends

Bewley's Café Theatre, Dublin Until April 13

Amy loves her job as a hairdresser, she has a nice husband and the couple feel lucky to own a home in current times. But no baby is arriving. The dream is dying, or in her case, not being born.

Writer-performer Lauren Larkin's one-woman show presents Amy going about her daily tasks in the hairdressing salon, cutting hair for a variety of customers. Larkin also plays the customers who reveal a lot about themselves while in the hairdresser's chair. Then there is Kelly, getting her hair done for her Communion, whose childish banter creates a complex picture of family life. There is Trish, dealing with ailing parents and Alzheimer's disease, and siblings who do not pull their weight. And there is Joan, whose loss of her adult son has dented her considerable ebullience beyond repair. These cameos are charmingly directed by Aisling Byrne, who also co-writes.

Larkin the performer has plenty of talent. The writing, though ever-conscious of the clichés of the hairdresser's chair, finds no way to subvert them. The play is reliant on the over-familiar for character development. Amy's trauma gets crowded out by the cameos in the rather episodic structure of the play.

Like chats in the hairdresser's chair, this play feels like it's only touching the surface of its complex subject matter.

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