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Love review at National Theatre, London – ‘potent and emotive’

Darcey Brown in Love at the National Theatre. Photo: Sarah Lee

Alexander Zeldin’s follow up to the painstakingly directed, Beyond Caring, is an even more emotionally devastating piece of theatre. Love explores the reality of life in a temporary housing facility. A young couple, Emma and Dean – played by Beyond Caring’s Janet Etuk and Luke Clarke – jobless and recently evicted, are crammed in a small room with their two kids. They’re desperate to be rehomed before Emma gives birth. In the room next to them is Barbara, an elderly lady in poor health, and Colin, the middle-aged son who cares for her. The facility is also used to house refugees. All these people share the same toilet and kitchen area.

As in the previous production, which explored the precarious existence of those living on zero hour contracts, there’s a remarkable level of observational detail. Zeldin’s technique is one of performed documentary. It shares skin with verbatim theatre but is something distinct.

We see the tiny battles over mugs and shelf space in the fridge. We see the various tensions that arise from sharing a bathroom. We see the Kafkaesque reality of trying to escape from this hole once you’ve fallen into it, the hours on hold, the paperwork, the sanctions imposed for the smallest perceived infringement. We see how the lack of privacy impacts on the characters’ relationships.

Zeldin is not afraid of silence – there is no music – stillness or repetition. A lot of time is devoted to people popping pieces of sliced white into a toaster and waiting. There’s a long scene in which Dean and Emma eat soup with their children and from the speed in which the parents gulp it down it’s evident they’ve been skipping meals.

The performances are equally intricate. Burly Colin, played by Nick Holder, has a poor grasp of personal space; he hovers over shoulders and leans in just that bit too close. Clarke and Etuk’s faces show the strain of people who love one another but are tired of living on top of one another. Ammar Haj Ahamd and Hind Swareldahab, Syrian and Sudanese refugees respectively, brighten when they realise they speak each other’s language. The relationship between Holden and Anna Calder Marshall, as Barbara, is incredibly tender and sad.

The same level of detail extends to Natasha Jenkins’ design, with its stained institutional walls and plastic chairs, the bunk beds glimpsed through half-open doors.

There are issues with manipulation here. Barbara isn’t just frail she’s doubly incontinent. Emma is weeks away from giving birth – and it’s a Christmas. Zeldin doesn’t just push emotional buttons, he dons great big boots and jumps on them from a height; even before the rather extraordinary gesture that takes place towards the end, people are weeping. But we should weep. As with Ken Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, this feels designed to make you angry. It wants you to look – and then it asks you to act.

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Verdict
Potent, emotive and accusatory theatre about the social cost of austerity
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