Companionship, Care and the Unconsidered - Reflections on modern living around a review of Love Without Walls
Friendship. It may seem cliche, hardly a revelation, to say that it matters - but sometimes the most obvious truths are those we take for granted. It is important to iterate the things we value in this life, to best see the ways they help us. Filiality is in truth the greatest, and fittingly most loyal, of assistants: we rely on it day, by day, by day again, a tireless virtue in our every moment of need. If the parable of “the fish who didn’t know that water existed' teaches anything, it’s that we could be surrounded by the greatest thing imaginable, the very medium that supports us and gives our world its structure, and not realise it - until it’s gone.
2022 was a fast year for many people, and 2023 seems faster yet. After the inertial crevasse of the COVID lockdown years, a populace starved of activity, socialisation and independence has sprung back with a level of engagement and energy that could be seen as frenzied, furious even, if there wasn’t something so upbeat and joyous about it all.
Perhaps it was the relative peace and quiet of the isolated lockdowns that gave us all renewed perspective, something which the tired humdrum of the previous “peace” (if the Trump years can bear the appellate) had clouded us from sensing. Perhaps rather it was the drive to reclaim lost time.
Perhaps it was the simple awareness that a catastrophic stretch of boredom could hit us all, that we could all lose something seemingly-invincible in the process (think of the teens of Gen Z, in particular, who endured a particularly tedious puberty during those years). For whatever balance of reasoning, it remains true that after a stretch of dark, comes a new dawn. For the world of today, that dawn means rediscovered love for the activity of living that we’d scarcely noticed had even mattered - and for the peers we could meet once more.
For myself, after the onset of the global pandemic killed the practicality (as well as my fundamental interest) in private tutoring, I leapt back in 2022 with the pursuit of a career in radio - an occupation beyond-recommended for myself, but which I had always put off (bar a dabbling in uni one decade earlier) out of some sort of misguided perfectionism.
Somehow, the end of lockdown changed all of that, and hand on my heart I’m glad. The spirit of “actually doing the thing which everyone says would be great for you to do” spurred me on - so a career in journalism followed, and this year I’ve begun, much to my own astonishment, to model.
In the process of the above, I’ve met more people per month than I encountered through the entirety of the crisis - but also, more than I generally met per-year BEFORE that point. When I look back on that time, the broad 2015-2018 spell, it looks like death. Lost months, withered minutes, wasted seconds. The “me of then”, accustomed to such living sans-reflection, would be astonished, possibly incredulous, over what I’m doing now and how I got here - likely, too, about the worldwide trouble preceding it, and if anything how the two could possibly concatenate in time so briskly. Looking back, the period has been phoenician; from the ashes of an old path, the new has been reborn.
It was the momentum of this miracle motion that carried me to the Stockton ARC earlier this year, where I had the pleasure of viewing Bangla Surf Girls, an insightful documentary-film into the lives of teenagers in Bangladesh seeking to earn a living and represent themselves through surfing under a socially- regressive clime; from this experience I wrote an article and conducted an interview with producer Lalita Krishna, which you can find linked at the bottom of the page.
Further, I met Aman Dhillon, founder and leader of Indian film network ReelN Ltd., as well as Patrick Hollifield, then-marketing manager for the ARC itself. Fast forward a few months and I now write for both of them -
in fact, I am writing for Aman and Patrick right now. It was the round-table discussions before and after the movie that cemented these working relationships, the feeling of appreciation, of shared perspectives
via diverse expertise - a feeling that goes beyond dry professionalism, into that of mutuality and kinship.
Nearer to home, via my continued production, voice-over work and DJing at CVFM, I have become fast friends with fellow host Baker Lillivick. Cheery, energetic and possessed of a natural can-do candour, Baker and I now frequently collaborate on plans both inside and outside radio. I remember reading some years back that, to paraphrase a cynical adage, “it is impossible to make true friends once you’ve older than 24” - a notion that I continue to find risible to the extreme. As much as my high level of activity contrasts with the drought of the COVID years and before, so too does the quiet solitude of the before stand clear from the camaraderie I experience with all of my valued peers at the station and beyond today.
With these details established, the stage is now set for our feature attraction. Another limited-run screening of an intriguing film - Love Without Walls - at the Stockton ARC, and another ticket +1. Last time, station manager Idrees Rashid had the ticket and kindly proffered myself the +1 - this time, I sought to return the favour, but Idrees is a very busy man. So who else do I offer the ticket but young Baker? A week later, plans are drawn for a lengthy bus route from Middlesbrough to Stockton - dashed by the cruel vicissitude of Idrees giving us a lift at the last minute - and we’re on our way.
Cut to the streets of Stockton. Once the town I called home, over five years ago. A fixture of the skyline was the Castlegate Centre, a long early-70’s edifice lining the entire Tees riverfront, and the sole shopping mall in the immediate area (the largest for a good aways around), complete with multi-story carpark.
At debut it was groundbreaking for the region, and it ruled its roost for over fifty years to follow. But after decades of decline in high-street retail, and particularly after the economic brutality of the corona years, the centre could take no more, with local councillors buying the joint and demolishing it for the sake of a new extensive public park project.
This move was deemed mad at the time, but scarcely two years on and it seems now that half the small towns in England, and a few mid-sizers besides, have decided to copy the manoeuvre. We see another clear example of a pattern - an establishment that no longer functions, a change was needed, difficulty and pain (the demolition has not been un-divisive), yet at last from the ashes of the old we see something good, maybe even glorious, arise anew.
I look at the vast expanse of empty sky where the Castlegate used to rise, and against my self-expectations feel wistful. Stockton is not the town of my youth - I grew up farther south in Yarm with a teenage spell in Eaglescliffe - and I never hung out there with friends, but during my young adult years I conducted my fair share of shopping, dining at the delis and bakeries, and passing through the footpath onto the Millenium Bridge (an architectural highlight of the town which the centre seemed to jealously monopolise) - I even befriended a few long-standing workers among its kiosks over the years. It’s strange to see it go - but it was never a reason to visit Stockton exactly either, and its issues and limitations will not be missed.
Much of this is lost on my companion as we wander the high street, ostensibly in search of snacks for the screening. Baker is a native of Marske and Redcar, over by the coast on the opposite side of the greater
Teesside region. Stockton has something of a rough reputation - to which my own 14-month living spell may testify - and compared to the more scenic coastal towns of the North East, the site of the demolished Castlegate ruins and sparse, almost empty high street (the widest in England in fact, now all the more obvious without its westerly wall) gave my friend an unnerved feeling. More familiar with the area, I assure him that it’s just the atmosphere of a lazy Thursday evening in June, and we keep walking.
This quick tour of the town proves eye-opening. Within minutes of setting foot, a disoriented man with track-marks on his forearm asks us for a cigarette lighter. We politely decline. Elsewhere, a large awning outside of a disused bingo hall has already drawn a few resident homeless, quietly contemplating the night air with sleeping bags and a watchful old hound. There’s a hat in front of them, unmonitored. We place some small change and move on, continuing our discussion about the history of Stockton, once an industrial and railway champion.
After exiting a corner shop with crisps, Cream Soda, jelly tots and a bottle of Volvic, we both share a somewhat guilty feeling of being overdressed. We both came smart for the screening, in case staff at the ARC wanted to meet with us. The cashiers, shelf-stackers and regulars in the corner shop cast an array of furtive glances from beneath their hoodies while we pay using our iPhones.
You don’t realise that you’re an archetype of privilege until you catch your own reflection in the freezer-cabinet door and see how much you stand out next to the Rizlas and White Lightning behind you. When I lived here, I fitted in with this environment; in five years, I am no longer so well adapted. Would I do well for myself if circumstances made me move back?
After a brisk walk south, we arrive at the ARC. As noted in my previous article, I used to live within walking distance, but never visited the venue. Perhaps, on reflection, I simply didn’t feel worthy of its smart vibe and intellectual content - a strange insecurity, but one that adds up with the greater feeling of Stockton-on-Tees.
The ARC is more than a centre for culture and art - it is an edifice, a civil place for showcasing meaning, and the discussion of gripping questions within a friendly, casual space. It stands upright, aspirational in a quarter that so very much needs this sort of confidence right now. I applaud the ARC after so many years of my own ignorance, and thoroughly encourage everyone to visit its website, peruse its attractions and give its curiosities a watch.
Half an hour of lively chatter over a quick drink at the canteen later, myself and Baker head down to the underground cinema where the screening takes place. The ordinary rituals of the theatre are respected - we take a quick scan for ideal seats and scuttle along the row, dice over the exact chairs of choice for a good 30 seconds, arrange snacks and drinks in a mutually shareable array, figure out how much whisper to employ in order to share thoughts without disturbing others, proceed to banter about the adverts in that manner all ads seek to elicit, and prepare ourselves for a standard watch. But there was nothing standard at all about the viewing that was to follow.
Running at an hour and fifty minutes, Love Without Walls introduces us to the Kellys - Paul and Sophie, portrayed by Niall McNamee (a recent rising star from Ireland) and Shana Swash (a familiar face to viewers of Eastenders in the early-mid 00s as teenager Demi Miller) - and their ordinary urbanite lives in London circa 2020 (ostensibly post-COVID but in practice the events could have been in any of the years immediately prior).
Like many people in their late twenties and early thirties, the couple keep their lives afloat on that unreliable river of modern income, the gig economy. By day, Paul studies hard to become a cab driver, after having failed multiple tests of his street memory in the past; by night, he performs original music, singing and playing his acoustic guitar at small clubs and venues (Niall is a gifted musician who provides his own talent in the role; he's noted for his recent EP Step by Step). Sophie makes a small side living in photography, largely of Paul’s performances, with aspirations of sending a portfolio to a professional studio.
The financial river is at once both challengingly rapid and all too shallow - neither are paid well enough for their labours, with promises broken and ugly last-minute compromises forced in order to recoup some money from each nightly endeavour. Paul copes in a deadpan, at times morose fashion, while Sophie is more likely to snap or allow a small scene to evolve.
But both are ultimately happy - they have each other, their modest apartment, a dog. Paul’s sister lives nearby with her husband and kids, and Sophie frequently visits her twinkle-eyed nan at the local care home, portrayed by veteran actress Sheila Reid with her usual talent for nuanced emotion beneath vocal aplomb. (Baker recognises her immediately from Benidorm - I quietly remember her touching performance in Brazil, a film in my top 10 of all time.)
The duo don’t have much - but they have each other, and that is enough. We all believe in this message to the cockles of our hearts. But director and writer Jane Gull is not content to leave this view untested. Our lovers are destined for a baptism of fire - beginning with a hard lesson in consequences. After months of excuses and ignoring letters, the couple suddenly find themselves evicted from their flat.
At first things proceed as normal - the duo pack briskly and head for Paul’s sister Debbie (Amy Malloy)’s place, who happily takes them in. The children are happy too, but husband John (Ricci Harnett) is not - a difficult, peculiar and insensitive individual who polices his family while viewing the Kellys with suspicion. Here we learn, through one uncomfortable exchange, of Sophie’s having a drinking issue in the past - “It’s not like you to turn down a glass” mutters John with a noxious exhale during a tense dinner.
It’s not long before Paul and Sophie outstay their welcome - with no extra funding in sight, the duo sell as much stuff as they can and settling for living in their car, parking in quiet and pleasant streets to kip for a hard night’s rest inbetween days of busy and difficult job hunting. Having been forced to put their dog into care, and without the means to begin taxi work given that the car is currently a packed bed-room, it’s tough times all-round - and when a previously-fixed leak turns out to be not-so-fixed after a rainy night, Sophie’s portfolio is damaged, leading to the first difficult moment between the couple.
Sophie swallows her pride and secures a job as a cleaner at a small hotel. Almost immediately she begins abusing the system - stealing showers in empty rooms, pocketting snack refills, catching forty winks on an actual bed. She even filches tampons from a guest’s handbag, and smuggles Paul in for conjugal moments - the first they’ve had in weeks.
The ambiguity is placed and played-with carefully here. We eminently empathise with the difficulty in Sophie’s position - especially those of us who have experience of lacking a stable place to stay, a comfortable bed in which to sleep, or the privacy we come to take for granted in this complacent 1st world. But Sophie slips a little too easily into certain sharp habits - and the thievery is a tad too far for most. This isn’t the character we know, who scenes-earlier assured the manager that she’s “a proper grafter, no joke” - or maybe that we think we know?...
This experience is bringing something unpleasant out of Sophie - the strain is manifesting in selfish and reckless behaviours, the sorts that people take to reassure themselves of personal power, competency and choice in situations where it feels as though they have none. Such fruitless risks often prove grievous - Sophie is eventually caught sleeping on the job by a guest returning unexpectedly, and is fired from the role. The manager (Simon Nagra) reveals that he’s known about all of her other transgressions for a while, and could throw the book at her a lot harder, but Sophie only grows ruder as she storms out.
Paul meanwhile seems to be bearing less of the stress, mostly touring clubs and pubs, performing his tunes as usual. Up to this point, he’s been adamant in playing the kind of music that he likes - soulful, often sad pieces that meander around complex and heartfelt topics. Beautiful music, but alas not always the most catchy. Here we see him react to a particularly unhappy pub audience with a rare adaptation, swallowing his own pride to abandon a dreary number and begin belting out a cheery Irish folk song.
The mood turns around and the crowd claps and cheers with him - until suddenly a string snaps on his guitar, the set thus coming to an untimely end. Paul walks away with almost nothing in his pocket, now without either source of income. A second swallow of pride lends him to donning a high-vis vest and working on clearing vegetation for a private building site, which is good enough for now.
Hovering over the background of all of this is the car - first the leak, then a total breakdown of the engine. With no means of motor transit, the couple are forced to walk the earth to and from their destinations, whittling their energy reserves even lower. What was originally meant to be a one-night stay in a random street turns into a several week stint, with the local residents none-too-happy about the strange young couple suddenly on their doorsteps - one whose personal conflicts begin bubbling to the surface.
Attempting to buy more privacy for themselves with newspaper on the windows may have been a misstep - the couple return one evening to see the car being towed by the police. Sophie almost loses her temper with the officer (Andrea Hall), but reason prevails in light of their expired paperwork. With this blow, the couple are now classically, stereotypically, street-dwelling homeless.
Denial at this point sets in. Neither Kellys are willing to knock on the door of a hostel. There are of course many reasons to avoid such a thing - the severe limitations on personal freedoms, the prevalence of the tableau of disordered people - of drug addicts with desperate habits, career criminals, psychotics that a better system would better treat - and a prevailing attitude of distrust, all give hesitance to the comfortable, at-times rather fearful middle class when jeopardy befalls them. Indeed, many of those who have resorted to such hostelry at a trying time in their past may remain reticent to speak about it for many years later. It’s difficult to judge Paul and Sophie for their decision to resist this option at first.
But the price is paid immediately. After a damp night under a cardboard canopy in a corner of an old building, Paul wakes up first to find the canopy gone - and with it, his boots. There’s a moment where the impact of losing a solid set of footwear - his only pair in fact - sort of stuns Paul. and we the audience with him. Existence has suddenly become so fragile. How? Perhaps it was always so fragile, but we were too ensconced in our post-modern surplus to notice, or care. Great media always inspires great questions, and I’m always impressed when a new work shows this vital capacity, to make a simple scene so pregnant with thought, profoundly deep as well as real.
This event takes place, I should note, after the couple make the executive decision to abandon London all together for now. Paul has some history in Southend, including a friend of his living there who apparently owes something to him. Whatever it is must have been large - large enough for said friend to start a new life, with a wife and a son, and a vague disapproving air when Paul turns up out of the blue. Like Sophie, Paul too begins to reveal a troublesome past, one he’s tried to ignore and forget until the day he must rely on it.
By this stage we’re entering into the last acts of the film, and I am unwont to furnish prospective viewers with spoilers. In point of fact, I hate them, and always relish the revelation of critical end-game plot twists for my own eyes - no hypocrisy in this article. Let us say that Paul and Sophie have yet to see the worst of their troubles, with pains fresh and familiar alike rearing their heads as their attempted clean slate is swiftly tarnished. It’ll be a hard battle before these lovers, two - assailed by abject poverty without, unconfronted issues within, and a slew of poor decisions inbetween - can find a resolution worth embracing with all that they have.
As the credits roll, I confess to Baker that I almost feel like clapping - luckily, neither of us are American enough to stoop to such a low. We settle for agreeing that it was an incredible watch, taking a moment to thank the staff of the ARC before heading on homewards.
Intermingled with the conviviality of our chattering was a wistful appreciation for the questions raised over this insightful experience. Nobody walks around expecting the world to fall away beneath their feet, a life on the streets pulling them under the surface of a desperate swamp - yet in truth, it can happen to us, to any and every single one.
The challenge, for people as much as for places, culture and a nation in general - is to rise from those fabled ashes. They say volcanic ash makes the greatest fertiliser - perhaps we should be less suspicious or wary of the sort of difficulties that we've examined, and - whether looking at a young couple in hard times or an entire town rethinking itself from the ground up - to be fairer and more positive in our views of their state and problems.
Love Without Walls portrayed the ease with which the tendrils of seeming-calamity can amount, creep in and suddenly overtake the lives of ordinary young people - handling the dual topics of personality and external realities with a deft balance needed and appreciated for the subject matter. Niall and Shana carry their respective roles with excellence - their lives and romance are real on the screen, and manage as the Kellys to be as likeable and root-worthy as they are also tragic and flawed.
Casting overall is superb, with names large and small fitting in exactly where they are needed. Highlights include Paul Barber in a two-scene appearance as the affable, eccentric yet nevertheless shifty tramp known as “Spiceman”, Darren Kent as a missing man named Alexander (a survivor of osteoporosis, Kent is an icon for disability in theatre), Steve Meo as the affable site manager Keith, and an actor whose name remains unlisted online, in a brief but unforgettable role as the most villainous figure in the story, a horrid character that always takes guts and skill for an actor to portray.
In doing my research for this article, I was surprised to see a slew of low opinions on a number of websites - 2 stars out of 5 being the most common rating. Part of me isn’t so surprised - theatre that tackles challenging issues tends to be polarising, and majority audiences tend to respond poorly to harsh narratives with depressing elements.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of present-day 2023 that people seek a little pleasant escapism, or perhaps it’s more just a desire for easy, mindless relief from the busy back-to-back. But it’s a little shameful all-the-same for so many reviewers to miss such an easy mark, when this film clearly hits many higher with a deft hand so often lacking. I would recommend Love Without Walls to anyone with an eye for those aspects of reality we don’t often see - the ones that make us sit up in our seats, and realise the great opportunities and friendships in our lives for the gifts they truly are.
Cinematography - 4/5, excellent close ups with a good sense of environment
Audio and Sound - 4/5, excellent original music by Niall, otherwise acceptable
Pacing - 5/5, the story takes its time where needed without ever feeling slow
Narrative - 5/5, extremely moving with likeable, real, complicated characters
Vision and Inspiration - 4/5, a rare thoughtful slice-of-life drama that challenges
Overall Score: 22/25 - Extremely good! Solid recommendation.
Gavin Winship writes for CVFM Radio in Middlesbrough, where he also broadcasts, voice acts and produces diverse shows and content, as well as for ReelN Ltd, a film network based in Hertfordshire with
Links to earlier works:
Review of Bangla Surf Girls - https://cvfm.org.uk/index.php/component/k2/item/1390-bangla-surf-girls-review
Interview with Lalita Krishna - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUuA-PcjqEk