On December 8, Alexander Zeldin’s play Love, first performed in 2016 at the National Theatre, was broadcast as part of the BBC’s Performance Live strand. Originally performed in the Dorfman, Zeldin’s play explores the bleak reality of life in a temporary accommodation facility as Christmas approaches.
The power of Zeldin’s play was in the way it laid bare the indignity and desperation of the characters’ plight. It highlighted the inhumanity of a system in which one stray letter or small bureaucratic oversight could result in weeks, if not months, without the possibility of being rehoused. It reverberated with fury and frustration at policies that meant that people could be sanctioned for a single missed appointment.
Executive produced by David Schwimmer (yes, that one), the screen adaptation reunites the cast from the National Theatre production. Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk play Dean and Janet, a couple with two children, and a third on the way, who have been evicted. They’re soon disabused of their belief that their stay in temporary accommodation will be a short one by Nick Holder’s Colin; he’s been in the system for months because of his unwillingness to be separated from his elderly and frail mother (Anna Calder-Marshall).
The strength of both stage and screen versions is in the way they capture the day-to-day reality of life in such a grim institutional environment – the shared bathroom facilities, the cautionary notices on every door and light switch, the near-total lack of personal space. It’s an intentionally, necessarily bleak piece, punctured by tiny moments of humanity – Colin washing his mum’s hair in the kitchen sink; the look of delight on a Sudanese woman’s face when she discovers a fellow resident shares her language.
Not everything translates as well. In both this and Beyond Caring, Zeldin’s earlier show about zero hours contracts, he honed in on the execution of mundane tasks, often carried out in silence. But silence has a different power on stage than it does on screen just as stage naturalism can feel jarring on television.
Zeldin’s occasional lapses into sentimentality and his determination to extract an emotional reaction from his audience are also magnified on screen, whether it be a small child repeatedly singing Christmas songs, or the fact that Colin’s mum is not just vulnerable but doubly incontinent too.
The original stage production’s most powerful moment was also its most theatrical: Calder-Marshall waded into the audience, touching people’s hands as she went; on the night I saw it people audibly wept. The screen version’s alternative, in which she wanders into the street, face raised to the rain, has less of an emotional impact.
But I’m not convinced any of this matters. This was an valuable experiment in adapting plays for different formats and different audiences, and like the original, it was an essential timely reminder that it really doesn’t take much – a rent hike, an illness, the collapse of a relationship – for people to slip through the cracks. The nets in place to catch those who fall are increasingly frayed. It not something we can turn our eyes away from, nor should we.