LIVES IN LIMBO
At the Connection at St Martin’s they say that none of us is more than two bad decisions away from the pavement. The street homeless we know, a little. Less plainly laid before us is the next step up: the hostel with small bare rooms off a common area, a squalid shared kitchenette and bathroom where different welfare “clients” may live for months on end before anything like a home is found. That is where we find Tharwa from Sudan averting her eyes from big shambling tattooed Colin , and the fragile old mother for whom he proudly proclaims himself “carer”. And in a cramped bunk-room a recently evicted family of four shortly to be five: Dean, his very pregnant partner Emma, and their two children. A bearded Syrian lad wanders through from time to time, sometimes settling down to watch Billy Elliot on his phone while drinking orange juice from the carton.
The title is canny. Alexander Zeldin could have called it “Austerity” or just “Bastard Tory Benefit Cuts”. There is a substantial essay about recent welfare history in the programme. But by the title he wishes us to note the human relationships as valid and honourable in this hundred-minute, painfully naturalistic, low-key slice of life . Which, by the way, makes you nostalgic for the days when people talked of kitchen-sink drama: any of these poor souls would kill for a private sink in which nobody else washes old ladies’ hair with Fairy liquid, borrows their mug without permission and gets territorial about fridge shelves.
As a conscience-pricker, the NT’s Christmas feelbad offering, it is effective. When the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall as the old mother finally staggers through the audience towards the stage death of the year, there was a standing ovation and I think it was mainly for her. But as drama it is pitched so low and slow, so anxious to convey the despair and boredom of this life by making us share it, that it is hard entirely to admire. Some muttered lines can barely be caught from halfway back in the stalls; more importantly, it is a very long time before we get even a hint of back-story, for which we hunger and thirst.
We do learn that Dean (Luke Clarke) and Emma (a dignified Janet Eluk) were evicted, and that in the stupid rigid system financially ‘sanctioned’ for missing a Jobcentre appointment on the day of eviction. This family provide the only clearly expressed narrative, and the children are finely played on press night by Yonatan Pelé Roodner and Emily Beacock, the latter providing a few laughs with her doggedly tuneless rehearsal of Away in a Manger and her keenness on decorating the miserable place with tinsel. The lad is just fed up, ending on the way to school with his determined parents as a surly dont-wannabe-shepherd with a teatowel on his head.
As to the devoted son Colin – Nick Holder – it is only in one significant late moment that we understand that beyond being merely thick and tactless he is in some way seriously emotionally damaged. Of the Sudanese lady we know little, until she suddenly livens up and chats in Arabic with the Syrian. But because this is basically an angry political play it would help immensely if it, or the programme, offered us imaginary social-workers’ notes on these people , a notion of the great complex engine which crushes them . We want to know exactly what systems failed them and for how long. Otherwise all we can do is echo Colin’s complaint that “the Council f—- you”.
Near the end actual crises happen: and indeed no woman three weeks off giving birth should have to mop up the double incontinence of an aged stranger in a common area where her children play and cross in neat school uniforms. But hell, we knew that. And we also know that people love one another, even when things are hard and horrible. But one longs for some politics, some admin, some acknowledgement of how vast the problems are and how we got here. Squalid misery at Christmas is easy to portray: economics and complexities less so.
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 Jan