The words ‘rave reviews’ are often bandied around as marketing draws, but in the case of the National Theatre’s LOVE, the feedback has indeed been exceptional. I had high expectations as I nestled into the Dorfman, the smallest of the theatres, a few days before Christmas. This may be a play set in the festive period, but it’s not the place for tinsel in the hair and reindeer jumpers. It’s a time of year that for most (or is at least perceived to be as such for most with via the trinity of round robin updates, social media feeds and John Lewis adverts) the most wonderful time of the year. But for more than 50,000 families living in temporary accommodation, that’s not the case. How can you hygge (to use another over zealously seen word) at home with family when you do not have either in your life.
We find ourselves amongst Colin (Nick Holder) caring for his ailing elderly mother, Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall), the unemployed Dean (Luke Clarke) desperately trying find a home for his pregnant partner Emma (Janet Eluk) and two children from a previous relationship, Jason (Vitaly Outkine) and Paige (Grace Doherty). More transient characters, perhaps a point about their migrant status, are Somali woman Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and Syrian Adnan (Ammar Haj Ahmad), who light up when they discover that they speak the same language.
They are strangers forced to share their lives together in claustrophobic apparently temporary accommodation. The set by Natasha Jenkins is stark and bare, seats on the stage and fluorescent lighting keeping nothing a secret, breaking down boundaries between audience and cast in the same way as between characters.
Colin may be initially unlikeable, but as we see his unconditional love for his invalid mother, extending to her toilet duties, we become warm and broken hearted. Washing her hair at the communal sink with fairy liquid is one of only many tender moments between the two. The familiar protest of getting up in the morning and family merriment, rehearsing for a nativity play and football practice, thinking of a Happy Meal – these every days moments all become something to marvel at given the situation we see.
‘I feel like a little girl sometimes’ says an invalid Barbara to young child Paige, who she builds a strained relationship with. For so many through no fault of their own, be it war, unemployment, illness or any of the struggles we face in life, things don’t turn out the way dreamed of us a child.
Through overheard phone calls to council offices and failed meetings we learn the cyclical nature of benefits, housing, sanctions and punishments and the very real pressures they cause on relationships and situations. Dean and Emma struggle to explain to their children just why they are sharing a pack of microwave rice between four, and when Barbara says to Colin that his life will be much better when she has died and removed herself as a burden, he can’t disagree, as much as he loves her. It all feels futile and intense, and painful to watch and imagine those for whom this is a reality. This isn’t poverty porn, and neither is it social commentary. Instead Zelkin has created an honest portrayal of the lives of many caught in the poverty trap, restrictive and destructive.
Mesmerising in its mundane details, powerful in its psychological power, it was created through a collaborative devising process with an ensemble of actors, all based on real occurrences. Choosing to run at just over 90 minutes with no interval was a smart move, as it intensifies the emotional potency.
As Barbara makes her way from the stage through the crowd to what we assume to be a bewildered ending, the audience is on the edge of tears. A few seconds later as the play ends, they are on their feet, in a unanimous standing ovation. Raving about a performance of a situation that should not exist. The next question is whether LOVE has raised enough emotion within us to do something about it. That truly is LOVE.