The Beginning[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)

Hovering somewhere between rehearsal and the real thing, between table read and tech-run, Michael Pinchbeck’s The Beginning is an intricate and quietly compelling deliberation on what it means to be on stage, in front of the audience, at the beginning of a show. In this deconstructed performance piece, love at first sight – love in its very beginnings – is the dominant theme. Fractured, lightly comic accounts of nervy first performances entwine with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the soundtrack and story behind Serge Gainsbourg’s 1971 concept album Histoire de Melodie Nelson. Like taking up a brief tenancy amongst Pinchbeck’s thoughts, The Beginning engages us in a gentle and undemanding hour of sweet inconsequentiality

The stage is bare and expectant as Nicki Hobday and Ollie Smith, sat on the periphery of the space, speak into microphones, acting as the mostly mute Pinchbeck’s mouthpieces. The Beginning has its similarities with Tim Crouch’s whatever happens to the hope at the end of an evening, and not only in the subdued, almost self-effacing delivery of the text. Hobday and Smith petition for our presence in the space, for small acts of connection with our neighbouring spectators. With heartfelt smiles, they encourage us to think about where we are, here on the brink of something, and all that may or may not happen.

However concerned it is with itself (or the very lack of itself), poising ever so purposefully before decisive action, there’s no draining sense of self-involvement in The Beginning – it’s mercifully free of anxious ramblings or wheedling apologies because, as Pinchbeck states, this show isn’t about failure. On the contrary, it’s clean and precise work, and a uniquely satisfying experience to watch it all come together – the endless call-backs of minute details, the way the various disparate plots combine effortlessly, as if Pinchbeck is reuniting them, returning them to some natural singular state.

When considering Pinchbeck’s work in retrospect, I end up actually visualising a very specific structure. The Beginning looks to me like a precarious but perfectly crafted structure of spun sugar: admirable but temporary, a treat dissolving on the tongue, in the very moment of experience. Of course, Hobday and Smith are generous and rewarding performers; whenever they catch our or each other’s eye, they smile, and we know we’re all in this together. They love us, we’re told. We’re the whole reason they’re here, and we believe them.

But once we grow familiar with the tone and rhythm of the work, it’s difficult to run with that idea of ‘endless possibility’, because it simply is what it is, too taut to be improvised, too measured and deliberate to ever fall apart. “What do we do now?” becomes a slightly hollow question. The dropped lines and apparent mistakes actually grate rather than endearing us to the piece, because as hard as anyone may try to minimise artifice, whatever is presented onstage can only be an inherently crafted construct, an imitation of unmediated reality. Something as precarious as The Beginning can hardly be called rousing or urgent, and it’s perhaps a little too consciously contemplative to develop into the boldly challenging or deeply necessary piece of work I longed for it to become– but then again, it’s only the beginning after all.

The Beginning is playing at the Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until August 24. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe website.