LOVE, Birmingham Rep

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The corner of a strip of wallpaper is curling off the wall. Hard plastic chairs cluster around tables. Dirty, chipped tiles line the ceiling and damp blooms in corners. A lone picture – one of those mass-produced prints you see in office lobbies and faded B&Bs the country over – is the one splash of colour on the walls.

Writer and director Alexander Zeldin’s aesthetic is less gritty realism than grubby realism. For this latest show, Natasha Jenkins’ set is meticulously stained and scuffed, careful to scrub away even the slightest veneer that might coat LOVE’s depiction of the crowded and run-down temporary accommodation in which an appalling number of people are forced to live. In aid of exposing this bleak reality, both stage and production are hyper-naturalistic. Kettles really boil. Toilets really flush. People pause and stutter and share awkward silences.

The situation that provides the premise for LOVE is perhaps even grimmer than that of the zero-hours cleaners at the heart of Zeldin’s previous show, the slowly devastating Beyond Caring. The grey, soulless space created by Jenkins is the communal area of a hostel where homeless families are crammed suffocatingly together, at the mercy of the council’s faceless bureaucracy and seemingly endless hold music. Stuffed into tiny rooms, sharing a broken bathroom and a basic kitchen, there is no privacy here. Even when all the doors are closed, the place hums with voices.

As with Beyond Caring, the action is all played out under bright house lights, with the audience bleeding into the stage. When I reviewed that earlier show, I wrote that Zeldin “asks us not to watch as audience members, but to look on as fellow human beings”. I’d argue that the same is true of LOVE, but I want to worry away just a bit at that distinction. Especially during some of the more wrenching scenes, in which characters are cruelly stripped of their dignity, I wondered whether I wasn’t just being made into a voyeur after all. Poverty porn is an ugly, ugly phrase, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable about my position as a privileged, middle-class spectator (a demographic that’s probably not too atypical of the audience as a whole). What are the ethics of presenting this to us?

Despite my discomfort, which I couldn’t entirely shake off, I do feel that there’s something subtle but crucial about Zeldin’s choice of staging. We as the audience are never wrapped in the comforting anonymity of darkness, gawping unseen at those less fortunate than us. Simply by placing us in shared space and shared light, Zeldin involves, perhaps even implicates us. There’s no solid wall of difference here. And when we are – finally, briefly – acknowledged within the drama, it’s with an overwhelming weight of emotion and responsibility.

For the most part, though, the fourth wall remains in place, if permeable. Through it, Zeldin offers us a glimpse into an eclectic selection of lives. The most seasoned residents are Colin (Nick Holder) and his ageing mother Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall), for whom he cares with a mixture of blokeish reluctance and surprising gentleness. Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab), arrived from Sudan, mostly keeps herself to herself, emerging from her room to make cups of tea and find phone signal. And desperately hoping to be rehoused by Christmas are Dean (Luke Clarke), his two young kids and his heavily pregnant partner Emma (Janet Etuk). Inevitably, they all impinge on one another’s lives, for better and for worse.

It doesn’t take long to see where the title fits in. Love throbs through this place. It’s not romantic love, not pretty love, not idealised love. Often, it’s love in its most unlikely manifestations; it’s love trying and failing and trying again to be expressed. It’s the kind of love that’s found in getting by or in cleaning up. It’s sudden, unexpected moments of tenderness and even, sometimes, sudden, unexpected moments of anger.

This kind of theatre demands patience. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how false and constructed theatrical ‘realism’ typically is and how rarely we see an accurate reflection of everyday life, warts and all, on the stage. These characters move at actual rather than dramatic pace. While that might make the action feel initially sluggish, the reward is in a rhythm and a precision that is unshowily exquisite. Zeldin and his performers have a musical sense of pace, allowing each beat to fall just so. And the detail of small movements is everything in this production, creating character through brushes of the hand and twitches of the mouth. It is, aptly for the subject matter, an incredibly compassionate style of performance. Everyone here is flawed, but everyone here is human. You might say the two are one and the same.

Often it’s what lurks at the edges of the show, hidden or only partially shown, which is most powerful. Like quiet Syrian refugee Adnan (Ammar Haj Ahmad), who swiftly appears and disappears, suitcase in hand. His fate remains unknown, but now more than ever you sense it can’t be good. Or like the unseen children of reserved Tharwa, on the other end of the phone and miles and miles away in Sudan. These stories of refugees, while not at the heart of the narrative, feel even more important now than when the show first premiered less than two months ago. The question of why we don’t see more of these characters has nagged at me since stepping out of the theatre, but perhaps their accusing presence on the sidelines is itself a comment on how we marginalise those who come to us seeking shelter.

Shelter is something that’s in short supply for everyone here. The invisible villain throughout is the stripped back, struggling state, with its irrational sanctions and its lack of social housing. Dean and Emma are punished for missing a job centre appointment on the same day they were being turfed out of their home by a rent-raising landlord, while Colin and Barbara have been caught in the limbo of temporary accommodation for a year or more. The piece never turns into a full-on polemic, but then it doesn’t need to. As with Beyond Caring, LOVE simply shows us the indignity of how cruel systems treat human beings, forcing us to really, properly look. And once you have looked, it’s hard to look away.

Photo: Sarah Lee.

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