When things are going well in a relationship you might hear three little words, when they’re going badly you might hear four: we need to talk. David Eldridge’s new play Middle is about that talk, picking apart the remnants of a marriage that’s already “smashed on the rocks, bleeding to death”.
We meet middle-aged couple Gary and Maggie in the strange, liminal space of their family kitchen in the small hours of the morning, a time when ‘parents’ are briefly allowed to become ‘people’.
“I’m not sure I love you anymore,” says Maggie.
“We forgot to defrost that pork,” replies Gary.
What follows is a darkly comic relationship melodrama that unpacks the unspoken miseries and shared loneliness of a couple realising that they’ve become bit-part players in the life of a nine-year-old.
There’s a chilling universality to Eldridge’s plays (this is the follow-up to 2017’s Beginning, about another couple aged around 40). They make you feel like your worst fears about your own relationships are taking terrible form before you.
Gary and Maggie, each pleasant but unremarkable, are a bundle of stereotypes – him the reticent City boy, her the dissatisfied housewife – but Eldridge and actors Clare Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan breathe real life into them. There’s an Alan Bennett-ish quality to lines such as “He’s read everything on the William Hill Sports Book of the Year list!” or Gary justifying his well-meaning purchase of a dildo with “It’s made of hospital-grade silicone!”
This is a play in which not very much happens: the characters mill about making cups of tea, or trundle back and forth from sofa to breakfast bar. We learn about them through the prism of their relationship, from their “sexy sex” to the “sexual desert”.
It’s all very well-observed, but boy does it take its sweet time. When, around the hour and ten minute mark, with half an hour still on the clock, Maggie recounts a long and involved anecdote about how she once dreamed of owning a VW Beetle, I wanted to tell them to just wrap it up, fellas, this marriage is over.
While Middle could have been a sucker-punch, by the end it feels like watching the death of a long-term relationship in real time.