Alexander Zeldin’s plays are like no one else’s: they humanely record the grim realities of the new age of austerity. Having previously staged work about exploited cleaners (Beyond Caring) and homeless families (Love), he now attempts to provide comfort and cheer to those struggling to survive. The result leaves one torn between admiration for people addressing the failings of a broken system and anger at their need to do so.
Set in a rundown community hall with a leaking roof, Zeldin’s production lives up to its title in different ways. The charity – though she would never use the word – is supplied by Hazel, who voluntarily cooks hot meals for the hungry. The hope largely stems from Mason, a cheery ex-con who creates a choir from the mixed group of lonely and poor people who turn up to eat Hazel’s pasta. Faith is the daughter of one of the regulars, Beth, who is fighting court battles to prevent her child being taken into care.
The play neither preaches nor hectors. It simply says that at a time of savage cuts (the programme reminds us that local councils have had a 77% decrease in government funding in the last four years) this is what life is like for many people: it’s a world of food banks, depleted social services and closures of civic amenities. But what is striking is the play’s stress on the resilience and humour of the left-behind: music, in the shape of a choral anthem, even provides a temporary consolation.
Like the writing, the acting is observant rather than demonstrative. Cecilia Noble brings out the quiet concern of the meal-cooking Hazel, Nick Holder as Mason is the born organiser with a belief in “growth”, and Susan Lynch as Beth careers between maternal anxiety and an unsatisfied rage for life. But there is exemplary work from the whole cast including Alan Williams as an angry old man, Bernard, who sees Christmas as a “fascist ceremony” and Corey Peterson as his youthful antagonist. In the end, this is that rare thing: a necessary play that suggests Zeldin has taken on the role of the Victorian Henry Mayhew in compassionately documenting the lives of the urban poor.
• At the National’s Dorfman theatre, London, until 12 October.