dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Finding affection in the hardest of circumstances
Alexander Zeldin's new play Love takes us into the lives of a group of characters housed in shared temporary accommodation - and it's a bleak set-up.
There's middle-aged Colin, washed up and hopeless, trying to care for his aged mum whose physical and mental health needs are more than he can cope with. Next door are a family of four fighting to put food on the table after their benefits were cut over a misunderstanding over a missed appointment. There's Adnan, arrived from Syria with an injured leg, a desire to get on with people but a difficulty communicating with them and there's Tharwa, who has left her family in Sudan but still manages to call her children when she can.
All, to take a phrase made famous by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, are 'leading lives of quiet desperation'. Every day is a battle for sanity, for control and for humanity. Thrown together by circumstances the group try to live cheek-by-jowl sharing a kitchen and a bathroom and yet retaining their own identity and privacy.
Zeldin's work was inspired by a first-hand account from a friend who works for a homeless charity and both the characters and the situations feel very real. It's the little details which make life so difficult for them – sharing space with people they don't know, arguing over tea cups, managing noise and family arguments when surrounded by listening ears.
An associate director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Zeldin creates his work by a devising process in which the cast help to shape the production, giving them a sense of ownership of the finalised work. Which partly explains why the characters are so believable.
Nick Holder has the awkward Colin down to a tee – he's a character we've all met, and, although few of us would want to admit it, will also probably try as hard as possible to get away from. He's not unpleasant but he's just needy and that makes others nervous. Anna Calder-Marshall is wonderful as his elderly mum – a rich character who loves to be surrounded by children and yet scares them and who dreams of a better life while knowing she is barely holding things together.
Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk as dad-of-two Dean and pregnant partner Emma veer back and forth between optimism and hopelessness as they try not to share their fears with the youngsters. The children's roles are shared and on press night at The Rep Darcey Brown was fantastic as the keen-to-please daughter Paige while Bobby Stallwood had a strong grasp on the slightly stroppy teenager Jason.
Designer Natasha Jenkins ensures the set is stark and bare with all the details emphasising the group's shabby situation. A grubby kettle sits next to discoloured tea towels and crockery piles up alongside the washing up bowl. Staged in Birmingham Rep's Studio space, the audience seats spill into the kitchen so that we too become part of the drama.
Love was premiered at the National Theatre in December which explains the now slightly incongruous timing of being just pre-Christmas. And yet when dad Dean brings home a few bits of tinsel and a star we still feel the sadness in seeing these lone decorations as the only nod to a time when most families are enjoying a festive time together.
Despite all the sadness, Zeldin chose to call his play Love and the bonds between the characters remain at the heart of the production. They may be desperate and unsure what tomorrow will bring, yet they retain their humanity and dignity through their love. Colin's tender washing of his mum's hair, Dean's choice to skip dinner so there's more for the children, Adnan's sudden enthusiasm when he discovers a fellow speaker of Arabic and Tharwa's plaintive phone calls to her children are all different facets of that love.
This love not only gives the characters hope it also ensures the audience is holding out for them. Zeldin takes us beyond the headlines and the statistics to a drama of real warmth and humanity.