Stage all the gory Greek tragedies you want, Mr Norris. Toy with revenge, and rage at the Gods, but don’t for one moment suppose that the loudest collective gasp at The Nash in 2016 was generated by the ruthless actions of a cruel antagonist. Know, instead, that the biggest villain of the year didn’t even bother to turn up on stage. Oh, she sent letters. And yes, she made her indifference quite clear through repetitive tinny on-hold bars of Vivaldi’s Spring – but Nanny State’s cruelest power lay in her absence, and in how, when her charges most depended on her mercy, she rendered herself invisible and inaccessible.
Those expecting to witness even the slightest shard of privacy in shared temporary accommodation will find, in Natasha Jenkins’s set design, a necessary jolt right back down to reality. Beyond the kitchen, where most of Alexander Zeldin’s brutal social drama takes place, doors to other rooms ooze out secret doses of interrupted family life. While heavily-pregnant Emma (Janet Etuk) is careful to lock her family’s bedroom door while she pops into the shower, it’s impossible to protect her less than desirable residence from the prying eyes of neighbours and audience members alike. The room she shares with partner Dean (Luke Clarke) and two young children, lies mostly obscured by a half-open door, but appears to pulse with an abundance of action and noise.
It’s almost Christmas, so the relentlessly spirited Paige (Emily Beacock) is rehearsing for the school nativity, while older brother Jason (Yonatan Pelé Roodner) locks himself into chart music on YouTube. Across the hall, isolated Sudanese mother Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) worries that the confusion over crockery may be a result of typecasting. In the room shared by middle-aged Colin (a scruffily sympathetic Nick Holder) and his incontinent mum, Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall), the advent calendar on the wall only scratches the surface of the days the pair have been counting down. To underline the LED strip-light intensity of the kitchen, Lighting Designer Marc Williams has left the house lights on. Such constant, encompassing exposure serves as a clear reminder that homelessness is rarely a choice to be made.
Just as black, grubby handprints have slowly grown on the walls, Zeldin gradually allows the tension in his staging to become uglier and more pronounced. This “temporary” accommodation starts to feel far from temporary as meals become increasingly minuscule, sacrifices become increasingly obvious, and faith in the system wears increasingly thin. As the assigned case worker turns a blind eye to each family’s increasing desperation, it’s heartening to see Zeldin’s concern for those he documents – evident in the sheer generosity of his richly observational detailing and the courageous weight given to mundane moments. Toast pops up, a toilet flushes, a lock clicks open, and the knives and forks of a hungry family orchestrate an urgent percussive beat. The Director’s compassion for his subjects is evident, too, in the light humour of his script, where characters desperately try to form bridges. “I was in a nativity once”, recounts Barbara, hobbling around the kitchen with the help of a cane. Then, clearly unaware of the punchline she is so visually portraying, “I was a shepherd”.
As the situation for all the residents becomes ever-more helpless, Zeldin layers the blame thickly onto the welfare system, hinting that – under different, better-managed circumstances – these families would thrive in the company that is currently so oppressive. And so those loud gasps were drawn not by blood or other bodily extractions (and trust, there were plenty of those to be found!) but by the simple ways in which our characters fought to bring humanity into a habitat decorated with fire extinguishers and “No Smoking” signs, smoke alarms and plastic dining chairs.
Out from an environment designed more for liability than for living, Zeldin has triumphed in teasing out a reluctantly-knotted clan of compelling characters. And those collective gasps? Well – they come from witnessing the clash of good intentions and ill-advised guidance, of low budgets and big hopes, of the choice between buying shampoo or Fairy liquid, and in how vast cultural chasms are negotiated as strangers decide whose turn it is to use the loo.
Love is at the National Theatre until 10th January 2017. Click here for more details.