Hannah Rich reviews ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ at the National Theatre. 07/10/2019
Alexander Zeldin’s latest play, Faith Hope and Charity, is a painfully accurate depiction of the age of austerity and its impact on public services. It is set in a community centre run by Hazel, the sort of woman the expression ‘salt of the earth’ was made for. Against the backdrop of council funding cuts, a leaky roof and the threat of closure, she feeds a cast of characters who each bring affectionate vignettes of life under austerity.
There is Beth, battling along with her teenage son Marc to convince social services not to put her daughter up for adoption. There is Karl, who sits in the corner waiting for a carer whose hours have been slashed again. There is Tala and her mum, who come hungrily for the hot lunch and stay for the choir. There is Bernard, shabby and unshaven, whose rambling thoughts about Christmas being a ‘fascist ceremony’ are peppered with grains of wisdom. (“People don’t have relationships with the place they live in now,” he says at one point, before lamenting that there aren’t enough trees anymore.) There is volunteer choirmaster Mason, recently released from prison after a childhood in foster care, with his cheerful riposte in any situation that “it’s all growth.”
“There’s all of life in there,” Hazel muses about her favourite David Attenborough show, although it is as true about the four walls of her community centre as it is about Attenborough’s ocean floor.
The set itself is uncanny: the grimy hatch in the wall, the strip lighting, the rattling silver urn for making a brew, the jug of orange squash, the rusty grill over the box heater, the curling edges of children’s drawings pinned wonkily to a felt noticeboard.
Take me to any church hall or community centre in the country and I will show you the same teetering stacks of blue plastic chairs. I even recognised the exact label of the corner shop carton of milk. I have met numerous Bernards in the course of my fieldwork for the GRA:CE project, researching similar community projects run by churches in every corner of England; countless Hazels serving up pasta to feed a growing number of hungry and lonely people.
The programme notes pull no punches in detailing the extent of local council cuts since 2010, which is reflected in the gradual shrinking of the community space. Leaks keep appearing in the roof. By the end of the performance, the off–stage ‘room you’re not supposed to go in’ has flooded and become the room you cannot go in. Hazel seems increasingly resigned to shutting up shop, literally closing down the serving hatch and packing things away.
For about two thirds of the play, the lights are up over an audience who blend into the set as cast members sit in the front row at various intervals. From the cheap seats at the side of the stage, this provides the opportunity to observe everyone else’s reaction, which was a real treat for a researcher like me. You can watch every uncomfortable gasp, knowing laugh, eye roll, yawn and look of horror – the whole gamut of society’s responses to the desperation of austerity.
Some may throw the phrase ‘poverty porn’ around in relation to Zeldin’s take on life without a safety net. However, that would be unfair of what is a very humane portrayal which, for the most part, avoids cliché or platitudes. I have to admit that early on when Beth’s lost daughter turned out to be called Faith, together with the spectre of a character called Charity who half the cast had once known, I feared the worst. But Hope never quite arrives. When Mason’s ramshackle choir sing Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’, Hazel cuts them off before the chorus line, not quite able to sing (or perhaps believe) that every little thing really is gonna be alright.
For all that, there are moments of true joy. The whole cast comes together to sing the New Radicals’ anthem ‘You Get What You Give’ in a glorious show of resilience as the community centre falls further into disrepair and the developers edge closer. I found myself whooping involuntarily when Mason’s electric keyboard turned out not to be dead after the flooding.
It is a brilliant but grim picture of indomitable humanity and the power of community as well as an indictment on austerity politics. If it felt slightly like a busman’s holiday for someone accustomed to meeting characters like Bernard and Hazel in church halls, that is testament to Zeldin’s well observed writing and the understated performances of the cast.
It is also testament to the power of story. The creative process behind Zeldin’s work, as with my own qualitative fieldwork into church social action, involved observing and listening to individuals and their accounts of life. It is what makes the work so believable but also so powerful.
In the abstract, I know that four million children in the UK are classed as living in poverty. In the concrete, I will always remember Jack (not his real name) who, when offered a hotdog at a holiday club run by the local church, tried to share it with his two younger siblings and had to be convinced that there were enough to go round. Retelling those stories simply, without explicitly labouring any political point, makes for as strong a call to action as any of the statistics quoted in the programme.
Faith, Hope and Charity is playing at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until 12th October.