It’s only a few minutes in when Maggie (Claire Rushbrook) looks at her husband Gary (Daniel Ryan) and drops an almighty bombshell: “I’m not sure I love you anymore.” Blimey.
More revelations come along soon after: Gary no longer arouses her, she hates (and loves) their pre-teen daughter and she has been seeing someone else. For his part, Gary deflects like a madman, talking about his strange dreams, a pork recipe and Eighties music. He mawkishly points out the efforts he has recently made (including buying a 9-inch vibrator and checking her internet history to see what turns her on). When he finally does accept what his wife has told him, he veers wildly between disbelief and grief.
Set in his native Romford, David Eldridge’s Middle takes no prisoners in its lacerating study of a marriage on the rocks. Like the first of his trilogy, 2017’s Beginning, this play is a 100-minute one-act two-hander. It barely pauses for breath but, when it does, the silence is deafening. In a similar fashion to Patrick Marber’s Closer, the verbal violence reverberates and shocks yet, to anyone who has ever been in a similar situation, is coldly familiar.
As she did with Beginning, Polly Findlay’s direction takes care to give both characters a truly emotional journey. While it is Maggie dropping the truth bombs, it is Gary that explodes – shouting and stomping around Fly Davis’ prosaic kitchen/diner set before smashing plates like a Greek on speed – then implodes, desperately pleading with his wife to accept him back under any circumstances.
Eldridge expertly explores the mental health morass that is middle age. Both Maggie and Gary feel stuck: she feels that she never got what she dreamed of (a career in TV, a VW Beetle named Beryl) and feels unloved while he is happy with his well-paid job as a trader but is constantly worried that he is seen as the weak link in his young team. Gary’s reaction to his wife’s news feels and sounds natural, his pain showing when he tells her “you’ve cut me half”.
A spotlight is shone on their differences – family backgrounds, education and how they treat their daughter – and how this has formed an unspoken wedge between them which has slowly eroded away the affection Maggie felt for her husband. Thanks to intelligent and powerful performances from Rushbrook and Ryan, this battleground is explored in forensic detail creating at times a breathtakingly claustrophobic experience.
Middle. as the name suggests, isn’t here to provide a definitive denouement. Whether this is the beginning of the end of this couple’s relationship or the end of the beginning is left unknown; Gary, possibly in his most delusional moment, concludes that this is “the middle – like the Empire Strikes Back“. Quite what this means for the final part of this trilogy, we’re keen to find out.