Surviving on little more than faith, hope and charity, a group of volunteers, vulnerable adults and desperate families gather in a dilapidated community centre for a hot meal and a brief respite from the grinding poverty that has engulfed them.
Understated and quietly furious, author and director Alexander Zeldin’s bleak portrait of contemporary England concludes a triptych of excoriating state-of-the-nation plays he began with Beyond Caring in 2014 and continued with Love in 2016.
Many of the same touchstones appear here: the same commitment to naturalism, the same deliberate, achingly slow pace, and the same empathetic yet unflinching gaze into the disordered lives of people falling through the cracks in our system.
There’s an extraordinary restraint in Zeldin’s writing, much as in his direction, plus a willingness to let time pass and allow silence to saturate the performance gradually.
Performers put out and pack away chairs, busy themselves folding paper napkins, or settle in among the audience, alone with their thoughts. At other times, keenly observed ensemble scenes unfold with no particular focus, each character expressing a tiny fragment of a larger story.
Natasha Jenkins’ set design complements this sense of naturalism with a painstakingly realistic set, all damp-stained walls and doors receding into interior spaces. There’s even a tiny, concreted outdoor area lashed by rain.
Provocative lighting design from Marc Williams leaves the house lights up almost continually, simultaneously inviting the audience in to the space and confronting us, nakedly, with the injustices we’re witnessing.
Bobby Stallwood gives a gently heartbreaking performance as teenager Marc, struggling heroically to provide a strong and stable presence in his shattered family, while his chaotic mother Beth – a squirmingly unstable Susan Lynch – crashes through her own battle with social services.
Cecilia Noble’s maternal Hazel quietly communicates a futile internal battle with her own guilt, while Nick Holder’s choir-leader Mason radiates the kind of soft-spoken calm that can result from surviving one harrowing experience after another. Meanwhile, Alan Williams provides much of the show’s humour and heart as shambling, burnt-out grandfather-figure Bernard.
As each episodic scene drifts past, characters waver between optimism and frustration, hope and fury. They are continually forced to dig deeper, to scrape the bottom of an already empty barrel. When one room floods, they huddle into another. When the power goes out and they can’t provide hot food, cheese slices and white bread will have to do.
Though Zeldin never explicitly states any particular case, the play eloquently distils the galling outrage of a political situation in which, as a society, the most we choose to offer to a starving family is a soggy cheese sandwich.