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Review: Alexander Zeldin’s ‘Love’ at the Birmingham REP

By and | Published February 1, 2017

‘Love’ sold out in its run at the National’s Dorfman theatre, but audiences have another chance to view Alexander Zeldin’s latest play now that it is playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre – and it’s not to be missed.

The 90-minute play is a beautifully compassionate, pain-stakingly detailed look into the lives of families living in temporary accommodation. Despite the short running time, the play varies in pace from the mundane real-time activities such as making toast, to the chaos that comes with several families competing to use and inhabit such a small space. Tiny details tell a lot, from arguments over crockery and battles for the single bathroom, showing the claustrophobia of being in such a confined space with so many strangers. The audience aren’t passive spectators either, but made helpless intruders in the space and the bleak living conditions these people must call home.

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In the unfolding drama, everyday actions such as cooking, eating and simply surviving become captivating, in part because the depth of detail and realism can’t help but to draw you in, and drag out your empathy. But also the fact that these characters are victims of a failing system, and through no fault of their own have become trapped in these dismal conditions. Said characters are all beautifully realised by a strong ensemble cast, and you feel sympathetic regardless of their flaws, due to how real they feel as people. Nick Holder is fabulous as Colin, a carer to his elderly mother Barbara, played by Anna Calder-Marshall. Their relationship is heartbreakingly realised, and aches with sadness and sacrifice. We go from touching and amusing moments such as Colin washing his mum’s hair in the sink, to his mother alluding to how her dying might make things better for her son.

We also see young couple Dean and Emma, with their two children, desperate to keep positive and with Emma just weeks from giving birth. The entire family were brilliantly played, and given intricately detailed portrayals, even down to Emma and Dean gulping down soup, betraying their reality of skipping meals to keep the children fed and make everything stretch that little further. A similar level of detail is given to the set, designed by Natasha Jenkins. From the faded, stained walls, beeping fire-alarm, to the glimpses of the interiors to each single-room the families have for themselves. It contributes again to the documentary style direction and depiction that Zeldin and the company have created.

However, there are some characters who do not receive the same depth and attention as others, namely the Syrian and Sudanese immigrants. Yet, there is enough attention given that we know that they too, deserve our sympathy, and are at no fault. They too deserve better than where they have found themselves.

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The play itself isn’t a vitriol of political passion. There is no character onstage or off that these characters can rail against or blame. Without a vent for their frustrations, the characters end up lashing out at themselves, each other, and distant figures at the end of a phone. There is no explicit overriding agenda, either.  There is no definitive response the audience must take. The audience must simply watch, hear about the circumstances these unfortunate families have found themselves in, and take it upon themselves to respond. In terms of emotional response, the original run was perhaps more provocative, as the play is set in the advent to Christmas, and therefore coincided with the real event. And at such a time of indulgence, food and gifts, it would have been a stark contrast to what we witness onstage. To any empathetic human soul, however, it is hard not to despair for the families we watch, and be appalled at the conditions they are facing.

50p from each ticket sold will go towards The REP’s ongoing work with people at risk of homelessness.