In the moments

Whether it’s existential dissatisfaction or the fear of someone seeing the contents of our fridge, Beginning at the Royal Exchange asks us to reflect on all aspects of contemporary culture

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When Laura, the female protagonist of David Eldridge’s play Beginning, first spoke of her optimism about the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and how America would soon elect its first female president, at the National Theatre in 2017, audiences would already have been sensing her idealism was naïve.

Perhaps they’d have already related more to Danny, who is disillusioned about politicians and their relationship to truth. The play is set in 2015, which doesn’t feel that long ago, points out artistic director Bryony Shanahan of the Royal Exchange, who’s directing a new production of this two-hander. But nearly a decade has passed since those hopeful days.

“When you think of what has happened between then and now, it’s kind of mind-blowing,” says Shanahan. “A revolving door of prime ministers, Trump, Brexit, #MeToo, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and much more. It’s been a time of huge change and of volatility that has, at some point or other, affected everyone.”

Danny and Laura are in some ways opposites. Eldridge’s 100-minute, real-time play finds the pair brought together by circumstance. He’s the last hanger-on at her housewarming and the play sees them searching for connection as they wind their way through the after-party’s clumsy silences, empty bottles and near kisses.

“The evening that they share together gives them the time to really thrash some stuff out and to question each other, to dig deeper, asking them to really consider someone else’s experiences,” says Shanahan. “Whatever their Twitter bios may say, I think they realise that they both have much more in common than that which may divide them. And they connect on a level that’s hard to articulate succinctly.”

This is not a play about politics but about connection – something Shanahan believes, above all else, “can fill a space and reach an audience”. It poses the question – can one moment change the course of your life?

The challenge in a play with such intimacy, says Shanahan, is in the detail – “the exact moment that someone picks up a wine glass, the precise timing of when someone makes an offer, the sensitivity of when the atmosphere changes in a heartbeat”. Even though it’s one scene, and a lot of words, there is a whole world of things left unspoken. Shanahan says it requires precision to find all that subtext and subtlety.

Gerard Kearns. Main image: Erin Shanagher with director Bryony Shanahan. (Photos: Chris Payne)

“This piece is the tip of the iceberg of who these characters are, what they’ve been through, what they want and what they need. We need to do all of the work to know all of that stuff, all of that history, in order to present the audience with real people in areal situation.”

There’s also nowhere to hide, she adds, because there aren’t any transitions that can change the mood, or moments of respite to reset.

“Once we start, it’s just the actors, within the world we’ve all made, and the audience. Which is a challenge but also so exciting, because we’re left with this dance, this stand-off, this meeting and we have the privilege of being with them for the whole journey.”

Taking on the challenge are Blackpool actor Erin Shanagher* (The Bay) and Manchester’s Gerard Kearns (Shameless) – two performers Shanahan says she has admired for a long time.

“They have huge amounts of heart, they are open and willing to be vulnerable and that is what this piece requires,” she says. “They’re funny and warm and both have the ability to crack open all of the subtlety and the inner world of these people. Whether it be an extended monologue or an excruciatingly long silence, I believe them and am rooting for them as Laura and Danny, and so I think an audience will too.”

In rehearsals Shanahan says she has happily watched them batting back and forth witty dialogue.

“They’re not afraid of showing all of the messiness and contradictions that we all have and live with. They dive into the complexity of Danny and Laura which means they jump off the page and show us two real people.”

Beginning speaks to experiences that reflect our contemporary condition, whether the complex relationship we have with social media, or what it means to be in your late thirties or early forties and life not quite looking like you thought it would. It touches on the everyday pressures both big – like finding love – and small – like feeling self-conscious about someone seeing the contents of your fridge. It’s also about loneliness – the kind that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re literally on your own – and when Laura and Danny are honest about it, they find recognition and reassurance rather than judgement or ridicule. In a fast-paced world of dating apps and 24-hournews, Beginning asks audiences to slow down, sit in the silences, and be honest.

“It’s so incredibly relatable and articulate around the way we navigate jobs, families, heartbreak, insecurities, existentialism, vulnerability and change…. With so much stimulation and with so many different pressures piling up, it’s easy to not take a moment and ask yourself who you are right now, what you want and what you need.

“The play pushes both Danny and Laura to take a moment, to dig into some of their demons, to share their secret hopes and, ultimately, gives them an opportunity to be brave and truly present.”

Beginning is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 16 February-11 March ( * Read our feature interview with Erin Shanagher on 

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