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‘Middle’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • National Theatre, South Bank
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Middle, National Theatre, 2022
Photo by Johan Persson
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

David Eldridge’s new play is a painfully sharp drama about middle-aged, middle-class marriage

‘Middle’ is the eagerly awaited second instalment in David Eldridge’s relationships trilogy, which kicked off with fizzy 2017 hit ‘Beginning’. 'Middle' is lumpier, slower, and sadder. It describes an upwardly mobile Essex couple pushing 50, who find themselves horribly weighed down and perhaps sunk, by the six-bed house, the daily estrangements, the spoiled daughter, the prep-school fees and the extra pounds that they've put on in their pursuit of middle-class happiness.

'Middle' opens in the small hours, in an open plan kitchen-sitting room that looks like a show home, where Maggie (fancy dressing gown, shabby slippers) is warming some milk. When her husband Gary (stretched West Ham shirt, geezer-ish demeanor) asks what’s wrong she drops the bombshell: ‘I don’t think I love you any more.’

What ensues in the following hour and 40 minutes is always gripping, often painfully funny, and mostly deeply sad. Director Polly Findlay manages the pace and the sad/funny balance beautifully. Eldridge is super-adept at painting context and milieu and the couple’s lives outside the downlit show kitchen are vivid: his skint childhood and the wideboy success in the city which is now setting him up for a heart attack; her disappointed bohemian aspirations and the lower-middle-class parents that look down on Gary and also love him. The downside of this detail is that the pace sometimes gets slowed down by all the exposition, with Claire recapping every relationship issue in their history from start to finish and checking off pretty much the entire standard bucket list of middle-aged marriage failure; lack of sex; semi-affairs; job loss; breastfeeding difficulties; maternal loneliness; endometriosis; fertility issues - tick, tick, ticketty tick. 

Actors Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan extract every nuance and layer from the characters - the deep, controlled sadness that brims up constantly in her voice makes the demands she’s making of Gary, who’s gutted, seem less cruel and more desperate. There are some zingers too: ‘I don’t think they do conscious uncoupling in Essex,’ says Gary, ‘Unconscious coupling, yep.’ Daniel Ryan brings a bluff, battered warmth to Gary. What looks like crassness – buying his wife two types of vibrator to perk up their sex life, but then chickening out and hiding them in with the Christmas decorations – is an attempt to distract her from wallowing in the badlands that all long-term relationships possess. ‘We’re not at the end babes,’ he says finally. ‘We’re in the middle.’ It’s clear from the rueful tittering, comments and applause at the end that the middle-aged couples in the audience can empathise only too well.

Written by
Caroline McGinn

Details

Address:
National Theatre
South Bank
London
SE1 9PX
Transport:
Rail/Tube: Waterloo
Price:
£20-£65. Runs 1hr 40min

Dates and times

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