ANNA CALDER-MARSHALL (Barbara) in "Love" directed and written by Alexander Zeldin at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre.
Anna Calder-Marshall as Barbara. Photo: Sarah Lee
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Here is a Christmas show for our times. About 120,000 children will be homeless in the UK this Christmas, hidden away in hostels and temporary accommodation. Alexander Zeldin’s Love gives us an inkling of what that is like. He focuses on two families and two individuals, forced together in a drab, functional space. The result is gentle, often funny, but ultimately devastating.

No fairy lights here — indeed designer Natasha Jenkins keeps the house lights on throughout, placing us all squarely in the same space. We share in the characters’ discomfort as they eat, sleep and bathe in close proximity. There are political points here — we learn that Dean, his pregnant partner and his family were evicted when they couldn’t pay the sudden hike in rent imposed by their landlord, and that missing one Jobcentre appointment has left them sanctioned and penniless.

The dress rehearsal of "Love" directed and written by Alexander Zeldin at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre. NO EMBARGO
Janet Etuk in 'Love'. Photo: Sarah Lee

But it’s mostly through texture that Zeldin works. Tiny, precise observational details help you to glimpse what homelessness feels like: the hours waiting on hold in the hope of speaking to an official; the micro-squabbles over fridge space; the queue for the shared loo; the humiliation of unpacking, in front of your kids, a bag of tins from the Foodbank.

It’s deliberately untheatrical and yet perfectly suited to theatre, where we sit and wait with a character for the kettle to boil. Just as in his earlier work Beyond Caring, Zeldin uses silence potently: often not much happens because that is the nature of being in limbo. The performances too are understated and painstakingly detailed. Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk eloquently suggest the strain of living on top of one another, while Yonatan Pelé Roodner as their young son simmers with rage at having to share a room with his parents and his small sister (Emily Beacock), who is, ironically, rehearsing her lines for the school nativity. And Nick Holder and Anna Calder-Marshall are simply outstanding as the lumpy, awkward middle-aged Colin and his frail, elderly mother.

Is it loaded? Well yes, in places. And of course there is an irony in watching a depiction of poverty in the National Theatre. But the National is doing exactly what it should do: turning a national spotlight, at Christmas, on the dehumanising reality of being homeless. And above all, and most movingly, it is a piece about love at its hardest: the tenderness with which Colin washes his old mum’s hair in the sink would make a stone weep.

To January 10, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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