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BWW Review: LOVE, National Theatre

Do not be fooled by the five stars at the top of this review. Love is not typical Christmas fare, offering a barrel of laughs and the chance to see big-name TV stars making fools of themselves in the flesh.

Instead, in this co-production in the Dorfman between Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, Alexander Zeldin has created the kind of drama that could literally create political havoc and change lives.

His 90-minute production takes place in the communal area of a council-run hostel for the homeless in the run-up to Christmas. However, rather than the drunks, junkies and down-and-outs that one typically pictures in such properties, the inhabitants on show are a broad cross-section of today's underclass.

Literally living at the centre is a family of almost five, given that Janet Etuk's Emma is due to give birth in three weeks' time. This gives hope to her partner, Luke Clarke as Dean, a perfectly respectable but unemployed man who feels sure that pregnancy will guarantee of immediate rehousing.

In the meantime, the couple plus troubled Jason and angelic Paige, respectively Yonatan Pelé Roodner and Emily Beacock at the performance under review, are obliged to make do in the most straightened of circumstances. It will be hard for most viewers to imagine what their lives would be like if a trip to McDonald's were unaffordable and nutrition literally comes courtesy of a food bank.

Next door neighbour Colin, played by Nick Holder, is a Brummie who seems happy enough until stressed, at which point he practically collapses.

It doesn't help to have an elderly mother Barbara, who is losing control of all of her faculties, causing deep embarrassment and anger when her incontinence loses patience in the living area.

What makes this piece so difficult to comprehend in this day and age is the treatment meted out to these unfortunates by a variety of officious civil servants.

Emma knows her rights and these include an obligation for the council to move all residents out of accommodation of this type within six weeks. Colin understands reality, having spent the last 12 months cooped up in a tiny room with Mum.

To add colour but little character, the other two residents on show are respectively a Sudanese mother hoping to be reunited with her children before too long and a limping Syrian, whose backstory might well have provided even more drama to an evening already brimming over with it.

In the role of Barbara, Anna Calder-Marshall gives an astonishing performance that towers over even the efforts of a generally superb cast under the direction of the playwright. By the end of the performance, viewers will be rooting for dear old Barbara, as they hold back tears prior to what must be an inevitable standing ovation every night.

If ever a play was written to change society, Love is the one. It certainly doesn't make for easy or pleasant viewing, but no visitor could fail to be impressed by the quality of the writing, the sense that it is closely based on real-life experience and the efforts put in by the whole cast to ensure that audience members have an unforgettable, if gruelling, evening.

Love at the National Theatre until 10 January, 2017.

Picture credit: Sarah Lee

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