THE SCENARIO of a man and a woman trapped by circumstance and the limitations they place upon themselves is the theme of the big London theatre hit of recent months, David Eldridge's Beginning at the National Theatre, and it bears many more similarities to Stewart Pringle's prize-winning debut play Trestle than just its one-word title.
In Eldridge's play, widower Harry (Gary Lilburn) carries out his retirement duties as chair of Billingham's Improvement Committee with diligence. But there's little excitement to be had. So, when the sparky yet blunt Denise (Connie Walker) turns up for her zumba class, his idle muscles start to reactivate and he even reluctantly dons his own exercise gear at one point.
As they cross paths at weekly intervals, they build a heart-warming yet dysfunctional friendship which threatens to go further but is stifled largely by Harry’s matured rigidity. That frustration is somewhat symptomatic of a play which briefly touches on many issues, from body image to youth incarceration, but never explores them in much depth.
Cathal Cleary’s uncluttered direction accentuates some brief moments of hilarity, particularly in a tickling scene involving blindfolds and sandwiches, and no blame can be laid at the feet of the two excellent performers who bring complete authenticity to their roles. Lilburn’s tentativeness is enough to make you want to leap out of your seat and shake him by his well-worn collar.
Considering the current demographic of Britain and its theatre-going community, it's hard to see why there are not more plays discussing the experiences of an ageing population. The stasis of this work maybe explains why.
Pringle’s play falls short of the incredibly high standards that previous Papatango prizewinner’s have set. Although your heart is warmed as it plods to its odd concluding scene, the journey there doesn't have much to maintain interest.
Runs until November 25, box office: southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
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