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Love at Christmas?

The dynamic between different family units living side by side in shared temporary accommodation is something one does not often see. Even as homelessness solicitors at Hodge Jones & Allen, typically we act for one particular individual or family with a particular legal issue – rarely do we act for multiple individuals who are in precisely the same predicament in precisely the same space-time-place. And so it was fascinating to watch the new play Love, being shown at the National Theatre this December, which traces the story of three families as they face the prospect of sharing Christmas together in B&B accommodation.

The National Theatre summarises the play:

“In the run up to Christmas, three families are placed into cramped temporary accommodation. A middle-aged man and his elderly mum, a young family with a baby on the way, a newly arrived woman from Sudan. Strangers. Forced together. No space is personal. In this new play by Alexander Zeldin, written through a devising process, the audience are invited to bear witness to an intimate story of family love for our times.” Follow this link for more information.

The play is a moving and at times humorous portrayal of the beauty and brokenness of human relationships in the context of the basic need and desire for a home of one’s own. It shows the tensions that can arise both within families (with benefit delays, for example, meaning it is difficult to put food on the table), and between families, where there are cultural and social misunderstandings and preconceptions , which are only intensified when placed in the crucible of cramped communal living.

So there is much brokenness in the play, which makes for a moving performance. There’s Colin who is the sole full-time carer for his elderly poorly mother. He fluctuates between love and tenderness towards her, and physical and emotional exhaustion at having to support her with the most basic daily needs; in one amusing yet sad scene he is washing her hair in the communal kitchen sink, using a saucepan of cold water and Fairy Liquid; and in another scene, he breaks down in tears as another lady in the accommodation shouts at him for his mother’s repeated incontinence.

And then there is the family of four, where the mother Emma is due to give birth in seven weeks’ time and is dreading the prospect of doing so whilst still in B&B accommodation. Emma is crushed in her hopes that her family will be in their own home by Christmas, when Colin says to her that he has been there for 12 months. Of course, Emma is quite right to say back to him that, given her pregnancy, “the law says we can’t be in here for more than six weeks,” but Colin retorts bluntly, and without compassion, that the “Council does what it wants.” It makes one think of how many families know their legal rights when it comes to enforcing a council’s duty to provide suitable temporary accommodation; and then, even if they do know about this, one wonders how aware they may be of Legal Aid practitioners who are able to use the power of the law to change their circumstances.

And then there is also a single Sudanese lady. She is made to feel as a cultural and racial outsider, rarely stepping into the communal areas for fear of altercations with the other families. In the last scene of the play, she sits alone in the kitchen, on the telephone, simply saying “I miss you mum.”

Yet there is also much beauty and hope, despite the strain of communal living: the elderly lady gives her a necklace as a gift to one of the others; after an argument about the food obtained from a Foodbank, Emma and her partner lovingly embrace each other; and one of the children is repeatedly practising (in tone deaf pitch) her singing of “Away in a Manger” for the school nativity play. Indeed, towards the end, the family leave the accommodation heading to the school play, with the daughter singing and the teenage son embarrassingly dressed as a shepherd with a tea towel on his head – the same tea towel which Colin had used to dry his mother’s hair in the kitchen sink.

The play is a timely reminder of the never ending pressures around temporary accommodation: the resource-pressure on councils to provide it, but especially the pressure upon vulnerable families who have no alternative but to live in what they are given. The play is a startling picture of the human side to the political hot potato of the housing crisis: where there are those with the simple hope for a home and the real fear of life without one. And it is timely too because the play is set at Christmas, when of course we sing each year, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” It is a wonderful play to watch and reflect on – and as housing lawyers it is yet another stimulus to play our part in being agents of hope to the homeless.