Beginning review: A modern classic of love and loneliness ★★★★★

David Eldridge's hilarious, bittersweet rom-com lands in the West End

Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton in Beginning

Boy meets girl. Except boy is 42 and girl is 38, and they’re both a little drunk in the aftermath of her housewarming party in north London. Both, it’s fair to say, have baggage. And both Danny and Laura have a special, almost pathological, talent for throwing said baggage in the path of them ever actually getting it on.

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That’s the gist of David Eldridge’s rueful romantic comedy, which was a sell-out at the National’s Dorfman Theatre and now transfers to the Ambassadors for a limited run. The Ambassadors is a smallish space and the flirty awkwardness between the two leads was often so tangible it felt as if it swelled to fill the auditorium.

Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton as Laura and Danny (photos by Manuel Harlan)
Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton as Laura and Danny (photos by Manuel Harlan)

As did the laughs. It’s a production rich in belly-laughs, from the moment early on when Danny confesses to having “no radar” and then proceeds to ignore or skirt around Laura’s blatant come-ons. “You need a woman to tell you when to shut the f*** up,” she groans.

But bizarrely, it seems he’ll do almost anything to avoid the witty, sexy woman right in front of him, who appears to be smitten. By him – a rumpled recruitment consultant with a paunch and a ketchup stain on his shirt.

What’s going on? Finding that out is the fun of the plot. Sam Troughton as Danny and Justine Mitchell as Laura make what could easily be an exasperating series of non-clinches and displacement activities (“Shall we have a bit of a tidy up?” he suggests at just the wrong moment) into something believable, funny and sad.

Book tickets for Beginning

Meanwhile, the script gradually unpacks the pair’s backstories in what becomes a tender two-step of loneliness. In between the bouts of physical comedy (Troughton does Danny’s symbolic wrestling with a corkscrew beautifully) and banter about Strictly and scotch eggs, there’s a real well of heartache.

‘If you knew everything about my life, you wouldn’t like me,” sighs Laura at one point and Danny replies, “I don’t think there’s a person in this world you could say any different about.” That feels like the nub of their problem: too much information. “I wish I’d met you online. Everything would be so much easier,” argues Danny, as their flirtation founders on another shelf of embarrassment.

But online is the issue: in a landscape of social media, they keep no secrets and hold no mystery. Instead their honesty and oversharing keep scuppering any chance of intimacy, let alone love, heaven forbid sex. By the end of the play you start to wonder if the whole thing is the best advert yet for arranged marriage.

Certainly, as a gift box of insights on the torments of 2010s romance, it’s hard to beat. Modern love has never looked harder.

Beginning is at London’s Ambassadors Theatre until 24 March

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Book tickets for Beginning and other West End shows from Radio Times Box Office