Faith, Hope and Charity is the most important play of the year, perhaps the most important of our age. The story centres on Hazel (Cecilia Noble) and her attempt to plug the gap that our public services should be filling by independently running a free hot meals scheme at her local dilapidated community centre. With no funding, Hazel struggles to retain access to the building, which its visitors desperately need. It’s not just the hot meal they’re after, it’s the human connection and the sense of community that’s just as essential. After almost a decade of austerity, here are the very real consequences.
Alexander Zeldin’s play is the last of a celebrated trilogy, preceded by Love and Beyond Caring. He captures so beautifully the humour and resilience of those of us who are struggling to get by. It’s a very specific feeling when you know, particularly within a group, that once you have exhausted all avenues, all that is left is your attitude, your outlook, your blind hope. There comes an unspoken understanding that there is no other choice than to press on and try not to dwell too long on how truly fucked you are. Zeldin has distilled the essence of this spirit in Faith, Hope & Charity. Moments of joy are undercut by the knowledge that something probably will, if it hasn’t already, soon go wrong, but the characters beat on anyway, against the odds.
Zeldin’s truthful writing is performed by an impossibly brilliant cast. Ex-con and choir leader Mason is played with a relentless, frank hope by Nick Holder. Alan Williams is angry but solid and golden-hearted as the lonely elderly Bernard, while Bobby Stallwood is genuinely moving as 16-year-old Marc, who’s had to grow up much too fast. Watching over them all is Noble as Hazel, who gives them all she has. She’s strong and capable, until she cracks under the immense weight she’s carrying, and Noble delivers a gut-wrenching performance of a woman who already does so much, devastated that she can’t do more.
Set design by Natasha Jenkins is so true to life that I wonder for a moment if they’ve actually lifted an old community centre and plopped it in the middle of the Dorfman Theatre. Everything is meticulously recreated, from the yellowing dog-eared laminated posters to the thin layers of grime on high-traffic areas of the dingy magnolia walls. It helps to add to the heart of the piece. I think most people can remember buildings like the one Jenkins has created (I went to Brownies in my local one) and hers might evoke a certain nostalgia for the endangered, vital community centres across the country.
I do find it quite astonishing though, that after sniffling quietly to ourselves, tutting and patting our damp cheeks as we shuffle out of the stalls having just seen a play about food poverty, we’re promptly met with a table of enough hors d’oeuvres to feed a small army. There are no collection buckets by the door, and as far as I’m aware (although I’d love nothing more than to be wrong about this) no percentage of ticket sales are being donated to the Trussell Trust, or anywhere else. The back page of the programme is an advert for Rolex watches on one side and a ‘wealth management’ firm on the other. If we’re going to forget about it all the moment the curtain goes down, then what is the point?
In a scene toward the end, Bernard turns to us, the audience, and simply asks in an unsure voice “Can you help?” Faith, Hope and Charity reminds us that in these trying times, we must ask ourselves this question every day.
Faith, Hope and Charity is playing the National Theatre until 12 October. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.