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FringeReview UK 2016


National Theatre, London

Genre: Contemporary, Devised, Drama, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Part-devised by the cast and Alexander Zeldin who directs it too, Love premieres at the National Theatre’s intimate Dorfman, a run-down communal area of a B&B; designer Natasha Jenkins’ perfect simulacra whispers desolation. Lighting by Marc Williams; Josh Anio Griggs sound.


Alexander Zeldin’s Love part-devised by the cast and directed by him, premieres at the National Theatre’s intimate Dorfman, a run-down communal area of a B&B; white and sage walls grimily detailed, a breezy Jack Vetriano study of peopled umbrellas on a wall, another removed poignantly leaving tidemarks: designer Natasha Jenkins’ perfect simulacra whispers desolation. Two families, with stray solitaries, choreograph it with a rapt despair. Lighting by Marc Williams plays with half-lights and full neon; Josh Anio Griggs sound heightens the deafening silence.


B&Bs here function as some down-and-out parody of the line in Hotel California: ‘You can check out any time you like…’ Bleak departure lounges the system has provided for the homeless as an interim measure that backwashes into eternity.


Zeldin’s given us Beyond Caring, about cleaners, echoed in Atiha Sen Gupta’s long-developed, recent Counting Stars but however devastating these pieces are, nothing prepares us for this minute anatomy of how normal people failed by the system go about the business of slowly giving up, yet loving fitfully into the dark.


This is minutely realized in the breakdown of convention such as table manners. The men eat more ravenously, with less inhibitions, and butter’s stolen when a child wants nothing but butter on toast. Everything revolves around either the toilet, where Barbara’s graphically visible incontinence strains relations everywhere and leads to a crisis, and the kitchen area, over questions of ownership or washing.


Nick Holder’s middle-aged Colin cares for his mother, the incontinent occasionally distrait but affectionate Barbara, played by Anna Calder Marshall in a masterclass of distracted tenderness towards the other couple’s daughter but whose troubled past with Colin later erupts. In one extraordinary scene he washes his mother’s hair with Fairy, over the sink. It’s already the site of children using it to wash their hands after the toilet.


It’s easy to stigmatise Colin with his scouring others’ food, inappropriate language, his rapid overly—orchestrated remorse as a co-dependant no-hoper who’ll have no future once his mother does in fact die – as she once taunts him. In fact when he’s finally struck it releases terror shuddering back through his beached life to childhood trauma. Whether Barbara’s partly responsible, now gentled with age, is impossible to say. In fact Colin’s the shrewdest and most realistic of these inmates: with an old hand’s grasp of process, he realises the chances of housing are remote. He waits five hours for five minutes of ‘no’. There is no housing.


It’s not what the aggrieved more middle-class couple Dean and Emma want to hear. The latter played tautly by Janet Etuk as if she might snap (she does) refers to ‘negativity’ when Colin broaches the subject. With their rent hiked to eviction level, this perfectly ‘aspirational’ couple attempt to choreograph their work (three weeks from giving birth she’s also studying, he’s fighting an arbitrary decision to stop benefit) is complicated by their children. Bobby Stallwood’s perky foul-mouthed but articulate Jason occasionally torments younger sister Darcey Brown as Paige. She’s working up to a school nativity, her tantrums arise from denial of what she once experienced as normal. Her cautious tenderness towards Barbara inches towards benediction. They’re astonishingly authentic as actors and with their dialogue. The amount of F word language the children begin to use as boundaries begin to falter is devastatingly symptomatic, even shocking. So too then is the tenderness between Paige and the initially alarming Barbara.


As Luke Clark’s able-seeming Dean loses his fight with the DSS over an unjust decision to stop benefit (they were moving, told not to sign on, then penalised, an abusive policy to make savings) his normally affectionate if clipped relationship with Emma turns reproachful, sullen, almost icy when he has to leave Paige in the toilet to pursue his DSS claim, returning defeated with food bank fare. At a particular moment of tension the family starts eating more rapidly, each cauterised in loneliness.


Other voices like Hind Swareldahab’s Sudanese Thalia comment mutely save when correctly accused of taking a cup by mistake or interacting in Arabic with Syrian Adnan (Amar Haj Ahmad) whose more western penchant for Billy Elliott and Swan Lake isn’t appreciated. Wholly inoffensive he suddenly leaves for no known destination. Thalia realizes her mistake. Emma accepts it.


She takes far longer to accept herself when after an altercation over her Barbara-soiled dressing gown she strikes Colin, the opposite of what she aspires to be professionally. His response is wholly unexpected.


This is naturalistic acting of the order of some recent U. S. drama: Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays, or Annie Baker’s The Flick. Being devised, it goes even further, though seems minutely blocked. The heartbreaking Chekhovian moments occur when defeated in their assurance that they’ll have a home before Christmas, the family quietly put up decorations. It’s a defeat as final as anything in The Iceman Cometh. Rapprochements gleam hope like weak light under a door. And for Emma and Dean too there’s a sudden glowing affirmation. With Barbara last on stage seeking the sea she claims she knows intimately, making for the exit, you now this will simply fade to the black.


This performance the matinee after Press Night, held more press colleagues with notepads. One to my right stopped and broke down; another looked at him in mute recognition. This devastatingly detailed play is a quiet shouter, and the more harrowing. Its terrible legacy is that with a few term-changes, it might be played in thirty, fifty years. The poor and destitute seem to be needed to calibrate, even manifest obscene wealth in their opposites. It should send people into the streets, but then it already has.