© Photo: David Stewart
Two years ago, the play Beyond Caring premiered at the Yard Theatre in east London. Depicting the plight of those subjected to zero hour contracts, the play's understated, naturalistic style in conjunction with stories based on real accounts had conveyed without didacticism the inhumane, exploitative nature of the system to devastating effect. Word got around about the powerful nature of the show, leading to a transfer to the National Theatre last year. Its director, Alexander Zeldin has returned to the NT with another devised play (LOVE) that highlights another vulnerable group of people on the fringes of society – the homeless – and how bureaucracy exacerbates their plight.
Set in council-run temporary accommodation that's used as an emergency stop gap, the size of the allocated rooms for the residents have more in common with a prison than social housing. Overcrowding is common within these rooms, with little in the way of personal space (even trips to the loo can be interrupted by other residents). Despite all of this, there is a great sense of isolation within each and everyone.
Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) stays for the most part in her room and has no one to talk to (in a social context) until the brief visit of another Arabic speaker Adnan (Amman Jaj Ahmad) passing through. All Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall) and her middle-aged son/carer Colin (Nick Holder) have is each other. While they love each other dearly, the lack of dignity she has – especially as she suffers from incontinence – takes its toll. Then are the children, sister and brother Paige (Emily Peacock) and Jason (Vitaly Outkine) who grate on each other but find solace in going to school – a brief respite from the harsh reality of 'home life'. Their father and stepmother Dean and Emma (Luke Clarke, Janet Etuk) do their best to shield them from worries and despair, but nothing can hide the fact they have meagre portions of food for dinner – or that what they're eating came from food banks. And as if they didn't have enough to worry about, the imminent birth of their baby is likely to take place while they have no fixed abode – a future too awful to contemplate...
It would be bereft of me single out individual performances in LOVE. The whole ensemble inhabit their roles, each 'spot-on' in as their respective characters. One observation I would make though is the plays Anna Calder-Marshall chooses to be in are always good and/or interesting, never dull. A barometer of excellence if there was ever one.
Over the past year there has been a public debate about the relevance of theatre to people in the UK today, especially for the disenfranchised and given the way the referendum turned out. On the evidence of this play, theatre is more relevant than it has ever been, across all stratum of society. Mark my words, this play calls attention to the devastation that homelessness reaps on people's lives, in the way that Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake does for the depiction of the box-ticking culture of the benefits system.
Why is the play called LOVE? The word appears twice in the play, spoken by Emma to Dean and Barbara to Colin – a reminder from one to the other that the system and their gruelling situation won't drive them apart. They'll have to survive. Won't they..?
© Michael Davis 2016
LOVE runs at the National Theatre (Dorfman Theatre) until 10th January 2017.
It then runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 26th January - 11th February 2017.