Stillness. And silence. Two features of Love, Alexander Zeldin’s extraordinary naturalistic play at the National Theatre’s Dorfman space, which mark this production out for its bravery and dogged determination to grab hold of its audience, get in its face and shake it violently until it rises as one and shouts: My God. Is this really happening in our affluent and civilised society in 2016?
Well it is happening. Zeldin knows this because he researched his play by going to live in a temporary hostel for the homeless where temporary means permanent and permanent means downward spiral and downward spiral means utter humiliation. Consequently Zeldin has written and directed a piece of such power, such intensity, such truth and, ultimately, such sadness that we cannot fail to be moved. And moved, one hopes, means moved to action.
Who would have thought that such mundane, humdrum, diurnal routines could be so riveting? We are on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens next in the communal kitchen and living area of the hostel. Who’s going to appropriate someone else’s shelf space? Who’s going to borrow someone else’s crockery? Can a family with young children sit down to a meal and be left alone? And will people, please, clean up the shared toilet after use? Old and young are crammed into their one small room and then emerge into the communal space to engage in a kind of mostly gentle and polite war of attrition over who can do what, when, who’s going to get re-housed first and does the Council give a f**k anyway?
To pull this off Zeldin requires – and has got – a remarkable cast. Anna Calder-Marshall as Barbara, an aged, incontinent mother, cared for by her middle-aged son, dreams of a time she went to the seaside. Once. The thin veil of bravado, a residue from a once-proud mother and home-maker, dissipates easily in the face of the privations of hostel-life and an aged frame and uncontrollable body. Painfully slow-moving, there’s an astonishing moment when she leaves the stage through the audience and people get up and help her. Yes, these are audience members helping an actor because they are immersed in her misery. We are constantly being told that there will be more of them – old people – and less money for their care. And more old people with less money. And less care. Is government preparing for this? Is government listening? Is government going to come and watch this play to understand what is actually happening out there?
Her partner, Dean, is played effectively by Luke Clarke who deftly combines a breezy it’s-all-gonna-be-ok persona with an undercurrent of doom as, increasingly, he realises it may not all be ok. The children rotate
performances and on this occasion we had a suitably morose and stroppy nativity-play-sceptic Jason, played by Yonatan Pelé Roodner, with excellent surliness but eventual capitulation as he is dragged off to school with the
inevitable Wise Man’s iconic tea-towel on his head. Despite the depressing subject matter, there is plenty of humour here. Emily Beacock, as little seven-year-old Paige, an innocent ray of sunshine, putting up Christmas decorations and rehearsing dance moves (to the delight of Barbara), finally cracks with a withering “Why don’t you f**k off?!” to her testy brother, showing comic timing to die for.
The migrant residents – Ammar Haj Ahmad as Billy Eliot-loving Adnan and, making her professional stage debut, Hind Swareldahab as mug-coveting Tharwa – flit in and out of the action – which is what they are liable to do, the MSM reliably informs us – and they show us that the mix of the elderly, the evicted and those who are seeking a better life in a safe country is a volatile concoction that might easily explode.
Glowering over this like an advert for the joys of obesity and lack of exercise is Barbara’s son, Colin, played with astute and detailed characterisation by the outstanding Nick Holder. He is his mother’s carer and as such he runs the whole gamut from frustrated emotions to stoic tolerance. He’s belligerent – but soft-centred; he’s cantankerous but tender; he’s irritating but sympathetic; and he puts on a brave face as he drags his feet through his own personal slough of despond. He didn’t look for this, he didn’t ask for this but he knows he is powerless to do anything about it and all that is left is to love his mum as best he can. Holder’s is an exemplary performance in an exceptional show: Colin is totally unheroic – you couldn’t even class him as an anti-hero: he’s a kind of Peoples Anti-Champion.
Love is a show that needs to be seen, with emotions that need to be felt. This is life for some people – yes, a minority – in this country but government has to hear their voice and understand their predicament. It’s not enough to believe that putting a Jack Vettriano print on the wall will make everything all right (a point made through Natasha Jenkins’s excellently realistic design). Zeldin’s play, which moves to Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the new year, is an attempt to get that voice heard and if it’s not then even the love that binds
these fragile lives together will eventually dissipate.
Review by Peter Yates
A co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre
by Alexander Zeldin
Playing until 10 Jan
Running Time: approx 1hr, 30 mins no interval
In the run up to Christmas, three families are placed into cramped temporary accommodation.
A middle-aged man and his elderly mum, a young family with a baby on the way, a newly arrived woman from Sudan. Strangers. Forced together. No space is personal.
Love at the Dorfman – National Theatre
National Theatre, Upper Ground, Ground South Bank, London, SE1 9PX