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Phil Willmott

Review: LOVE at the National Theatre

Love - National Theatre On stage at the National Theatre's smaller venue they have recreated with incredible artistry what it would be like to live in some ghastly holding facility whilst you wait for council accommodation this Christmas.

Under harsh neon lights we watch a family of 4, with another child on the way, who have been made homeless by a greedy landlord and are now experiencing life in a tiny room next door to an incontinent old lady and her psychologically fragile son. They all use the same cheerless communal kitchen area shared with other residents and this space is our central focus, with the bedrooms and the one toilet, used by everyone, leading off of it.

There's no big story in the conventional sense, the residents must spend long days in council offices pleading for better accommodation whilst fighting off the sinking feeling that they're being forgotten, sidelined or ignored and will never escape despite being assured their stay in the hostel is only temporary.

But the lack of any conventional narrative arc or resolution isn't a problem. This is one of those plays and productions where a great deal is conveyed with not very much.

In the volatile hothouse atmosphere of the facility little victories over reclaiming ownership of a coffee mug or the generosity of letting someone more desperate for the loo use it before you speak volumes. As do the numerous expressions of love which give the play its title.

Whether it's an overt declaration of a mother's appreciation of her son or a friendly glance between strangers acknowledging mutual appreciation of a shared YouTube video these moments constantly provide glimmers of hope and optimism as they celebrate the inherent humanity of these beleaguered people.

Never the less the evening made me feel very uncomfortable. Not because the play's vision is a bleak commentary on our failings as a society to house the vulnerable, which it definitely is, but because I feel London's underclass is being presented here primarily so an affluent audience can experience the frisson of imagining they're poor too.

Homeless peoples' stories must be told but to those who have no clue of the miseries of their struggles, not those already in the know. I'd like to see this play performed to an unenlightened audience who could usefully be shocked into protest by the injustice, not to a crowd who already regularly read about these issues in the guardian.

No doubt it's all very well intentioned, no doubt all involved believe they're educating the audience but they're not, they're preaching to the converted, making all the pretending to be poor redundant at best and ghoulish at worst.

The fact that it's so brilliantly done is no justification. The shattering emotional precision of the writing by Alexander Zeldin and his minutely detailed direction, the ultra realistic design by Natasha Jenkins and the superb cast are all worthy of five stars but for me, for all the reasons above, it was an uncomfortable 1 star experience. So... 3 stars.