Olivia Laing in her exceptional book, The Lonely City, remarks, “So much of the pain of loneliness is about concealment. But…what’s so shameful about wanting?”. Loneliness, and the barriers we set up even as we try to forge new connections are at the centre of David Eldridge’s new play. In Beginning, we meet Laura and Danny at the end of a housewarming party. She is a 38-year-old managing director who, despite professional success, is looking for a catalyst to settle down, and he is friend of a friend who stays behind after everyone has left despite his impulses to run. Both are hiding their fear of being alone, tipsy, and yearning; they dance around each other (sometimes literally), wanting very much to be seen, and at the same time, terrified of being exposed.

The beats of Eldridge’s narrative feel Tennessee Williams-esque:_ A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof_ for the Tinder-age. Only here, stifling ‘50s Mississippi repression has been replaced by an equally stifling English one in the present day. Laura, Maggie-like, is driven wild by a hunger to fill a life she considers a ‘shell’. Danny, who at 42 hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, is back living with his Mum after the break up of a marriage and seems a latter-day Brick Politt – struggling with the idea he has let his life slip through his fingers. Just as Williams cut to the bone of mid-century America, Eldridge has a knack of finding just the right words: “I just can’t face another Sunday alone,” says Laura at one point in a desperate plea to stop Danny calling a cab. We get the sense that it really will be the final straw: Laura, for all her easy confidence is a single trigger from breaking point. In a single phrase Eldridge’s writing synthesises the particular brand of loneliness that so many are familiar with in the age of social media – true connections feel out of reach even as they seem to be only a click away.

“Beginning cloaks its vulnerable core in an armour of humour”

Much like the characters, the play cloaks its tender, vulnerable core in an armour of humour. Beginning is frequently painfully funny, ‘painful’ being the operative word. Several times during the play I wonder: “is it actually possible to die of secondhand embarrassment?”. As Laura and Danny go to ever increasing lengths to avoid confronting their desire for each other, sitting in the audience feels like having an out-of-body experience at every awkward date you’ve wanted to go well. It is difficult to watch and even more difficult to tear your eyes away.

The story unfolds over an hour and forty minutes in real time – a lot is revealed. Laura and Danny go from strangers who can’t take their eyes off each other to telling each other things they’ve never told anyone else. Objectively, the two cover more emotional ground than someone might cover in years of therapy, yet for me none of it seemed too much. Polly Findlay’s direction is masterful, allowing the audience, and the characters, room to breathe in between the revelations.

Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton deliver wonderfully nuanced performances, doing justice to Eldridge’s carefully crafted work. As the fragile thread of desire crystallises into a more lasting understanding between the couple, Troughton in particular does a wonderful job of peeling back the layers on Danny, who – once he manages to get his foot out of his mouth – transforms from a guy with one too many laddish quips to a kind, wounded man. Likewise, Mitchell is magnetic to watch as Laura, who at first seems to have her life figured out, but from whom we see a different side when her confident facade begins to crumble as the play goes on. Both, we see, are broken in a way the other could fix. As the night wears on, we can’t help but want to push them together, urge them to sort things out, and wonder where will it end: a one night stand or parenthood and a life together?

What is remarkable about the play is how real it all seems. As Laura and Danny live out the night on Fly Davis’ richly detailed set, we could be peeking through the windows into the ungainly, fumbling beginnings of a real relationship. It takes a rare talent to craft and bring to life characters with such vividness, especially ones that linger in the mind like these ones do. After a long absence, this is a welcome return to the forefront of British theatre for David Eldridge. Beginning is magnificent – don’t miss it.

Beginning is on at the National Theatre until 14th November. Tickets from £15.