When it comes to theatre’s awards season and best-of-the-year round-ups, I’ll be looking closely to see if Faith, Hope and Charity is included in the play, creative and performance categories. I hope that it will be, although I strongly suspect it may be overlooked.
The production, which ends this week at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, is one of the best plays of the year, but its short, six-week run has made it easy to miss. It reaffirms Alexander Zeldin, who has directed and written the play, as one of the finest and most exciting directors currently at work in the UK – yet he remains a name that many theatregoers, and even some in our industry, may not have heard of.
In his review for Time Out, Andrzej Lukowski astutely summed up Zeldin’s work: “His plays are about more than middle-class guilt and taking your medicine. They radiate warmth, care and belief in people.”
Faith, Hope and Charity is set in a run-down community centre. A volunteer looking for a new beginning is setting up a new choir and a group of people are brought together, though they clearly have few other places to go.
It is the last in a trilogy of works that Zeldin has developed that chronicle the age of austerity. His trilogy began at the east London new-work venue The Yard in 2014 with Beyond Caring, which explored the issue of zero-hours contracts, before transferring to the National. Zeldin followed it at the National with Love, which told three stories of families in temporary accommodation over Christmas.
Love was one of the most heart-wrenching and honest pieces of work I have experienced in the theatre, and one of the best plays of 2016. However, opening at the end of the year and another limited run meant it was overlooked when it came to theatre awards and that year’s theatre rounds-ups.
It has subsequently been made into a film, again directed by Zeldin, so if you missed it on stage check it out, especially for the remarkable performance by Anna Calder Marshall. With Faith, Hope and Charity now completing his trilogy, my hope is that Rufus Norris may bring all three works back together at the National and to run them in rep.
Zeldin has a canny knack for great casting. He again assembled a terrific company who brought a naturalism and truth to their gripping performances. The result is some of the best acting currently on the London stage. Among his cast is Nick Holder, who was also in Love. Like Zeldin, he is possibly an unfamiliar name to the general public, but I consider him one this country’s finest actors.
I have followed Holder’s career over many years, ever since I first happened to see him give a powerful performance as the understudy Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. He subsequently went on to act in various musicals and a variety of superb dramatic roles.
Holder is a good example of the point that Peter Polycarpou recently made on Twitter about categorising actors, especially among those with a strong musical theatre background. “I still struggle with actors, writers and directors in our profession who continue to look down on those who have done musicals,” Polycarpou wrote.
Many feel the need to add ‘musical’ before an actor working in musical theatre. It does not happen the other way around with ‘plays’ for actors who are more associated with drama. Why can’t we just define the job they all do as ‘actor’?
I find the reaction to a musical actor “crossing over to do a play” – as I have heard it described by colleagues – condescending and disrespectful. I have previously written about how, as a result, these actors face much more pressure to deliver the goods and prove themselves when they should be admired and recognised from the outset for their versatility and talent.
Polycarpou’s 2017 performance as Ahmed Quirie in JT Rodgers’ Oslo was one of the highlights of that year and deservedly, after many years of hard graft, finally earned him an Oliver nomination.
For both Polycarpou and Holder, it’s taken time to shake off being seen as ‘musical actors’. As an industry, we need to remove such bracketing of artists, and frankly to stop being so pretentious about the whole thing.
It’s to the great credit of the National Theatre which, over many years and productions, has worked hard to change such perceptions, with its company members working across all theatre forms. It also serves to highlight the value of an ensemble company.
However, when it comes to awards recognition, it’s still flash and awe that can overshadow more sensitive and intricate works and performances. Every set of awards will always be driven by timing and what’s on the voter’s mind when it is time to cast their all-important votes.
The second challenge is whether all the voters have actually gone along to see that particular work, especially if it’s a short run – an aspect of voting that should be made compulsory.
This can mean that a subtler play such as Faith, Hope and Charity risks being overlooked. A smaller show may need many more champions fighting for greater attention across award categories but that still only works if the majority of voters have actually seen the production.
Our theatre awards have shrunk in volume and profile. I greatly miss the Time Out Theatre Awards, which brought great value and attention to many Off-West End shows and often recognised less-commercial works and the performances in them.
Regardless of whether Faith, Hope and Charity receives its due recognition, I, for one, will be looking out and waiting excitedly to see what Zeldin and his actors do next. I also hope the theatregoers who may have discovered Zeldin for the first time will feel as inspired and engaged as I do.