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2 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Tremendous new plays Beginning and John offer differing looks at our desperation for connection

David Eldridge and Annie Baker’s works use contrasting tactics of realism and surrealism.

By Mark Lawson

The Prime Minister recently gave Tracey Crouch ministerial responsibility for dealing with social isolation. Perhaps the flagship initiative should be coach trips of the lonely – with post-show drinks to compare notes – to two tremendous plays that address sympathetically our desperation for connection, though with contrasting tactics of realism and surrealism.

Beginning (runs until 24 March) opens with an image so naturalistic it could have been drunkenly posted on Instagram. Laura and Danny are the last two more or less standing after a Saturday night flat-warming that has stretched into next morning – between 2.50am and 4.30am, to be precise, the action measured in real time on a kitchen clock. Danny’s shirt bears a stain that looks like blood or claret but proves to be a different substance with comforting associations.

It’s Laura’s flat; Danny keeps meaning to call a cab. But they go on drinking, as blurting becomes flirting, and old hurts and new hopes are exposed. The will-they-won’t-they romance is familiar, but digital dating gives David Eldridge’s a fresh edge. Conversation often consists of the couple quoting past contributions to Twitter and Facebook. “I wish I’d met you online,” Danny says, tellingly. “It would have been easier.”

By coincidence, a superlative revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party opened the previous week at the London theatre named after the dramatist, and it’s clear in Beginning how much Eldridge has learned from Pinter, especially the way in which small talk can reveal or conceal large truths. Pinter also taught us to be sceptical about what characters say, and in Beginning hangs the possibility that Laura and Danny may have tailored aspects of their anecdotes to their goals for the evening.

Sustaining a single dialogue for 100 minutes is tough, but Eldridge perfectly times the release of detail and director Polly Findlay paces the exchanges impeccably. Justine Mitchell’s Laura radiates sexy self-esteem, while Sam Troughton’s Danny projects crumpled defeat, but the scales rebalance as they speak. Couples leaving the theatre were arguing over whether Eldridge is finally kinder to the guy, but good plays don’t wear their meaning like a lapel badge.

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Beginning earned its West End transfer through acclaim at the National’s Dorfman auditorium, which is now hosting an American import, Annie Baker’s John (runs until 3 March). This is another play about disconnected people, in which each individual section plays out in real time on a clock. But the fact that the hands are moved forward between the nine scenes by the main character – who also opens and closes red velvet curtains at the start and end of the three acts – announces an approach far from iPhone photorealism.

The set might be an installation in a surrealist exhibition: in what seems to be a living room stand three caricature-Parisian café tables, although the walls more suggest a museum of childhood, crammed with dolls, trolls and other bric-a-brac, including an illuminated jukebox that, unusually, plays Bach and Offenbach.

The date, unexpectedly, is the present. This antique milieu is a Pennsylvania B&B, handy for the Gettysburg battle sites. A young couple, Elias and Jenny, have come to tour the haunted fields but become more involved in a personal civil war. Health teas and unnerving bursts of mysticism are dispensed by proprietress Mertis, a hunched eccentric portrayed indelibly by Marylouise Burke. Mertis has a blind friend, Genevieve, whom we occasionally see – once as a brilliantly executed shock – but she also mentions many unseen people who, in a post-Pinter way, may have questionable provenance.

In The Flick, Baker’s 2016 National Theatre play about a failing cinema, the characters sometimes left the audience alone, a practice as professionally counter-intuitive as babysitters nipping out to a nightclub. During one key sequence, the whole cast was offstage while we watched the set.

In John, this hyperrealism – rooms, after all, spend much of their time empty – is taken even further. At one point, the audience is deliberately confused over whether the play has stopped; many patrons, exiting the auditorium, had to scramble back for the pay-off.

Another of the play’s ploys is to disguise its genre. The set-up echoes horror movies, then seems to float towards a ghost tale. But, ultimately, it is about love as a blood sport, offering, through Jenny and Elias (magnetic young actors Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale) a devastating portrait of a relationship as a dangerous game, its rules complicated, as in Beginning, by electronic connectivity.

The 36-year-old Baker feels like the most significant American dramatist since David Mamet. The National must surely stage her play, The Antipodes, which is set at a corporate brainstorming session, and was premiered in New York last year. 

David Eldridge
Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2

Annie Baker
National Theatre, London SE1

This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration