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Strangers share cramped temporary housing in this searing festive show
Emma is eight months pregnant, and Christmas is coming - but she’s got nowhere to live but a cramped, dangerous temporary housing facility. Meanwhile, her step-daughter is running round caterwauling ‘Away in a Manger’ for her school Nativity. If the irony of Alexander Zeldin’s play sometimes feels a little pointed, it’s right to be: 'Love' skewers a social housing system that’s both cruel and utterly broken.
It’s set in the facility’s communal space, home to the grimy kitchen and toilet that all the residents share, and made painfully real by Natasha Jenkins’ naturalistic design. An incontinent elderly woman, her alcoholic son, a family with kids, a pregnant mother, two isolated refugees: one by one, they all shuffle in to toast slices of white bread or put the kettle on.
Zeldin’s painfully slow, closely observed approach turns the audience into voyeurs, forced to bear witness to their small humiliations and awkward attempts to connect.
Emma (Janet Etuk) and Ben (Luke Clarke) are fighting to get through to the council: a scrambled 'Four Seasons' blares out from their mobile phone as they serve up undersized meals of tomato soup to their two kids. Lonely Colin (Nick Holder) bumbles in, a huge unwelcome sore thumb of a man who drops swearwords the family are past caring about. Hind Swareldahab picks a fight over a borrowed mug.
Instead of building solidarity, cramped conditions sets the residents at odds with each other. They’re all convinced they’re leaving soon, and unable to put down roots in this lino-floored wasteland.
Zeldin’s piece is inescapably political, forcing you to confront the dehumanising reality of private landlords evicting families, councils making jobseekers wait for eight hours in their offices, or kids doing homework in a room full of strangers. From quiet beginnings, it sinks to an encounter that drew out some of the most intense audience reactions I’ve ever heard: gasping sobs and agonised tears.
Is it manipulative? Maybe. Like the moment in Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ where a starving woman scrapes beans from a tin with her bare hands, it takes away the dignity of people who are already allowed precious little respect by an unsympathetic media. But you can’t look away. ‘Love’ is a shameful, essential watch - and a look at the cruelty behind London’s bright Christmas glitter.