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Review of Love at the National Theatre

Sometimes a play just hits you right between the eyes and you find them filling, without bidding or overt manipulation, with tears. Alexander Zeldin's quiet yet overwhelmingly intense play Love both winded and wounded me in its portrait of people clinging on, barely, to the life raft of a social security system that is letting them all down.

Set in a half-way house temporary shelter for people waiting to be housed by the council, it portrays a snapshot of lives in the desperate limbo created by bureaucracy and circumstances over which they have no control. A young family is left destitute after their landlord evicts them after putting up the rent; but the eviction day coincides with the man's designated appointment at the Job Centre, so all his benefits are summarily withdrawn. He has to go to the food bank to pick up supplies to feed his heavily pregnant partner and his two pre-teen children who live with them from a former relationship. Meanwhile a middle-aged man and his incontinent mother have been here for a year already -- though the maximum time we are told anyone should be housed here is six weeks -- with no end in sight.

It's bleak and desperate as anything I've seen in the theatre all year; yet underneath the piercing sadness there's also a transfixing portrait of how, even in extreme adversity, love is expressed. The residents of this grim place may rub up against each other in fractious ways -- over who gets to use the bathroom, over who owns a particular mug -- but somehow they are also kind: they apologise to each other when they realise they've overstepped a mark.

The sense that love and our shared humanity conquers all is palpable. Other characters drift in and out of the play, but Anna Calder-Marshall and Nick Holder as the mother and son and Janet Etuk and Luke Clarke as the couple with the kids are just spellbinding, acting it with a naturalism that feels totally authentic.

This is a devastating and important piece of theatre; it is also one of the most upsetting things I've seen in a long time. People around me were stifling sobs, too.

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