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“I DON’T love you anymore”. Five words that no-one wants to hear, right at the heart of David Eldridge’s third play for the National Theatre.
As the Sunday morning sun rises in Romford, Maggie (Claire Rushbrook) begins delivering honesty bombshells to lovable “liability” Gary (Daniel Ryan) like there’s no tomorrow. After 16 years together, it seems that there’s no future for them and she reveals that she’s been meeting with Detective Inspector John at cafes and galleries for the past three months.
Gary scours hilariously for domestic distractions to avoid the harsh truths that Mags has dropped on him, but making cups of tea and defrosting the pork belly for the Sunday roast can’t distract from the fact that he is “cut in half” by her revelations.
The staircase behind them looms large as their daughter Anabel sleeps – being a parent hasn’t been the dream Mags expected and Gary hasn’t been around to do his fair share.
Once his half-sliced hand has been bandaged up after punching the window of the dresser, the talking really begins. Their wounded relationship may begin to heal – we’ll never know. A gyrating rendition of Otis Redding’s My Lover’s Prayer does little for Gary’s chances, but does provide plenty of laughs.
Middle may meet the definition of a classic domestic drama, but it also encompasses much more. Primarily, the great British elephant in the room – class.
With a six-bedroom house and two holidays a year, City Boy Gary has “got everything he ever wanted,” having grown up without much. But with his dad working on the bins and his mum at the checkouts in Iceland, they managed to buy their council house in 1983. The Thatcherite dream personified.
Mags’s comfortable childhood made university inevitable, but a dull career at an insurance firm has left her cold and dreaming of what might have been – and what could be. Her lengthy recollection of not receiving her dream VW Beetle for her 18th birthday reinvokes the values of conspicuous consumption epitomised by the Thatcher era.
Rushbrook and Ryan are so hand-in-glove in their roles that Polly Findlay’s role as director can’t have been too challenging, although keeping a single exchange watchable for a full hour-and-forty minutes is quite an achievement.
Packed with 1980s references, Middle combines the themes of Eldridge’s first two National Theatre plays – Market Boy and Beginning – and amplifies them to create a quiet but powerful “state of the nation” piece which may well prove a surprise hit with audiences.
Runs until June 18. Box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk
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