Alexander Zeldin’s world premiere of Love is by no means a stereotypical interpretation of the emotion. Natasha Jenkins presents a semi-immersive set, a run-down, stark social housing unit that bleeds out into the audience space – the front rows directly sit in the way of the production itself. Characters enter and leave their respective rooms to cook, eat and play in the audience space, littered with frayed chairs, stained walls and cold, flickering fluorescent lighting. But whilst this is not the expected caricature, Zeldin’s writing is awash with feeling and pathos, quintessential elements to love that are less glamorous, less yearned for. Love is not sunshine and rainbows; love is togetherness, companionship and a joint appreciation for each other even whilst suffering is all around.

Two families, living in adjoining rooms, share the storyline here. Retired, somewhat senile Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall) and live-in, lazy but caring son Colin (Nick Holder) are a comedy double act – perceived as the dregs of society, laughed at (and not with) when they burn scrambled eggs or wash their hair with Fairy liquid in the sink. Father Dean (Luke Clarke), children Paige (Emily Beacock) and Jason (Yonatan Pelé Roodner) and pregnant, new wife Emma (Janet Etuk) are the latest additions to the unit. A typical, dysfunctional family in all ways, complete with sibling fights, football and a lack of food, everyone is anxious to be away from their existence in purgatory as quickly as possible. Zeldin engineers a sense of collective distress between both clans, banding them together against the evil council whilst ultimately they come from different worlds – chalk and cheese, never wishing to meet. Immigrants Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and Adnan (Ammar Haj Ahmed) are also occasionally present in the drab and dreary environment, supporting characters that touch the lives of each family briefly but with long-lasting impacts.

Love succeeds because all aspects of the production exude a microscopic attention to detail. Jenkins creates an atmosphere that plunges its audience headlong into the environment; Zeldin takes an extraordinary situation and revels in the mundane, normal social interactions between each character. Tempers are heightened to such an extent that each line of dialogue has the potential to blow out of all proportions; somewhat small points of contention are raw and intense. Every actor exudes their own version of fragility and more than one breaks down at a variety of points, wailing against the apparent hopelessness of it all. In particular, the combined pity, disdain and affection all characters have for Barbara makes for powerful viewing – as events draw to a climax, her inane ramblings suddenly reveal a rich subtext, a yearning for companionship and intense pain at a hard life that is ending not with a bang but with a whimper. Calder-Marshall’s performance in this role is a haunting look into a dystopian future, a final scene that simultaneously contrasts and emphasises love at its most powerful.

Love is playing the National Theatre until January 10, 2017.

Photo: Sarah Lee