Review: Hunger, Arcola Theatre

‘It can happen to anyone’ says the anonymous lead of Hunger as he reflects upon his descent into unimaginable poverty and hunger. Knut Hamsun’s novel, upon which Amanda Lomas’ play is based, might have been written 130 years ago, but this idea surely plays into the deepest held anxiety in every student, gig-worker or freelancer that has ever moved to the city: that somehow the precarious life that they are holding together will disintegrate and leave them with nothing. 

Director Fay Lomas seeks to bring the visceral horrors of life on the breadline to a middle class theatrical audience of London in this world premiere of the play. We see hunger eating away at an individual until his reality begins to crack and he cannot engage in any of the world that is left. He is rejected with cries of, ‘There must be a place for people like you’ – but as it turns out, there just isn’t. 

Despite exploring such a prescient subject, there are unfortunately a fair few problems with this production. Kwami Odoom brings nervous energy and vigour to his role as the lead, but he lacks sufficient presence to really own the stage as a deranged leading man. There is a want of rage and intensity in how he plays his part, and a few of the monologues which are intended to carry the play’s rather brief 75 minute run time don’t quite hit home.

The script also feels occasionally rushed or truncated, with several random and unnecessary scenes that might have been maintained out of a desire to be faithful to the book, but in the end only serve to distract from what should be the play’s sharply tragic trajectory. Occasional bitter and ironical invocations to God by the lead seem in particular to never quite marry with the gritty reality of everything else that is going on. A pseudo-baptism scene in the ocean towards the end is a particular head-scratcher. 

The company is generally solid, shifting between parts in a masterclass of drama school-trained accents sketch work. They keep the action light and amusing before things are meant to get darker towards the end. One problem that occurs, though, is that while they are continually playing different parts, they are also reappearing as the same characters. In a play that aspires to hold its audience in the grip of a psychological thriller, we spend too much time trying to decipher whether we are supposed to know exactly who they are playing at a given moment. 

What saves Hunger to some extent is the fact that it is wonderfully evocative of the urban landscape. Through the clanging industrial soundscape (by Lex Kosanke), the manically shifting choreography (by Natasha Harrison) and a design palette fixated on murky browns and oranges (by Anna Kezia Williams), we really feel late Victorian anxieties about the unstoppable march of the depraved metropolis.

The protagonist drowns in the frenetic chaos of the city, when everyone else is somehow able to ride its wave. It is only a shame that other elements of this production don’t quite come together to meet this overarching vision.

Hunger is playing the Arcola Theatre until 21 December. For more information and tickets, visit the Arcola Theatre website.