Writer and Director: Alexander Zeldin
Reviewer: George Atwell Gerhards
Alexander Zeldin’s Love, which pitches its tent in Birmingham after a critically acclaimed short run in London, is about many things. It’s about temporary accommodation and the housing crisis. It’s about adjusting to the small things when you have the roof over your head taken away from you. But most significantly, it’s about the extraordinary lengths people will go to to look after one another.
Love follows a young family; a middle-aged man looking after his incontinent mother; a Sudanese woman waiting for her children to join her and a quietly enigmatic Syrian refugee as they spend their days navigating the boredom, frustration, and bureaucratic hell of living in temporary shared accommodation. Natasha Jenkins’ superb set perfectly captures the run-down blandness of the communal living space: plastic chairs, grey walls and a perfectly judged Jack Vettriano prints really do establish the miserableness. Shuffling through these grim surroundings is an interesting mix of people, and Zeldin’s greatest dramaturgical trick is to keep his audience unsure of where their sympathies should lie. Nick Holder, who gives a stonkingly good performance as put-upon carer Colin, is an unhygienic, vaguely menacing brute of a man who at first intentionally plays into the audience’s stereotypical view of the white working-class man, only to gently peel back the layers one by one. Holder, and credit must go to Zeldin here too, gives such a complex nuanced performance that, in contrast with his neighbours Dean, Emma and their two kids Paige and Jason, you find yourself torn over who deserves more sympathy, who has it worse? It is only in the play’s final moments, after a rather messy exchange between Colin and Emma (another wonderful performance from Janet Etuk) that you realise that you should have been rooting for them all the whole time.
Away from the central characters, Zeldin has a nice subtle approach to the smaller parts, letting them drift in and out, allowing us only a glimpse of their own troubled lives. And that’s okay. These people come and go, that’s the whole point of temporary accommodation, and strangers can often just stay strangers.
That’s not to say that Love is a cold play – far from it. There are moments of beautiful light-heartedness. Ammar Haj Ahmad, who gives a delightful near-silent performance as Syrian refugee Adnan, brings joy to kids Paige and Jason with a cheeky grin and some clumsy physical comedy. The relationship between Colin and his geriatric mother Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall) is deeply touching too. Even though without her he’d have it easy, and that he has to clean up after her every bowel movement, Colin loves his mother and he’d be lost without her.
This is Love’s most potent message. That despite a benefits system that is designed to trip you up; and successive governments refusing to commit more money for social housing; despite sanctions and rip-off landlords and the fact that nobody important seems to care about you – you are not alone. There will always be somebody to help you clean the crap up off the floor.
Zeldin has created a masterpiece. A Christmas show for the dark times we live in. A gentle drama with sadness at its core.
Runs until 11 February 2017 | Image: Sarah Lee