Cecilia Noble in FAITH, HOPE AND CHARITY at the National Theatre. Details and Tickets here

IN BRIEF Unmissable, quietly devastating look at the dereliction of the UK’s social care system, with an award-worthy central performance from Cecilia Noble

For all of its two hour running time, Alexander Zeldin’s self-directed new play FAITH, HOPE AND CHARITY is quietly devastating. A window into a world that most have chosen to look away from, Zeldin stealthily attacks our conscience by simply allowing his characters a voice. The cold, harsh strip lighting which thrusts out into the audience remains mostly on throughout, bringing the audience into the play- they cannot observe unseen in the dark.

Set in a run- down community centre, all hard bucket chairs, cold strip lighting and leaking roofs, centre manager Hazel runs the place pretty much on her own. This warm, kind-hearted surrogate mother figure tends to society’s most marginalised and vulnerable, a vital beacon of humanity, giving a hopeful word here, a reassuring touch or hug there, and always trying to offer the small disparate group of centre users what others have given up trying to. It’s easy to feel the weight on her shoulders as she attempts to pay the price of austerity for others.

With a quiet, calming voice and a wealth of small ways to manage the many different directions in which she is being pulled by the demands of the users, Hazel is played exquisitely by Cecilia Noble in what is easily one of the performances of the year. Hazel is the beating heart of this dilapidated building. She cooks the one hot meal that the users get each day, serves it with care and manages the food donations that come in – always tins, she notes. Hazel is the sole provider of humanity here- a smile, a hopeful word, a hug, a small morsel of encouragement – that in some way helps the users get through their long, rainy days.

The arrival of Mason (Nick Holder), a reformed ex-prisoner who grew up in the care system, brings a little hope in terms of help for Hazel and the restarting of a choir. Mason makes suggestions and contributes, but he has his own complex needs too. His parrot fashion positivism gives him something to cling to.

And as time goes by, small bonds begin to grow between the centre users, albeit fragile ones. Fragments of their stories begin to emerge, while others stay closed and inaccessible, their single common bond being need. Small gestures mean a lot where there is so little. Arguments that arise are defused and settled amicably between the participants in a sign that they still retain their humanity and respect.

“It’s hard to find people to talk to ” says Beth (Susan Lynch), vocalising a common issue between the characters. Beth is at risk of losing her own child to care authorities and visibly disintegrating before our eyes as the play progresses, finally desperately abandoning her dignity in ways which are both moving and deeply disturbing.

Even in the aftermath of a flood, Hazel finds a scrap of hope. “There must be something we can do”, she says, and true enough, she produces sandwiches. She even organises a petition to try to stop the closure of the centre, ” If I get enough names they’ve got to listen.” Hope is what resolutely keeps raising its head, through Hazel.”There’s always someone worse off than you” she says with humility.

Later we learn that Hazel’s caring instincts have many more drivers than we may have realised, but what is undoubted is that her care impacts on all the other characters; and in the one instance when she is unable to help she is truly devastated and bewildered. “All the animals take care of each other” notes Hazel about her beloved animal documentaries. The unspoken question hangs – so why can’t we?

The British vocal fallbacks marble the conversations- “sorry”, ” thank you”, “can I help?” in ways that convey a spectrum of meaning. What is plain is that these people are the human fallout of systems which cannot afford to care, and the burden shifts onto those dedicated individuals desperately trying to keep it going with sheer humanity, fighting an impossible battle… but fighting it anyway.

Brilliantly written, cast and directed, Zeldin’s vital and heartfelt final play in a trilogy holds a strip-lit mirror up to a society that seems to be almost past caring. Can this be the impoverished society we truly want? We still have time to do something about it; but that time is running out.

Please take this opportunity to see this very important play while you can.

FAITH, HOPE AND CHARITY runs at the National Theatre until October 12th. Details and Tickets here

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