Mouthful is a relentlessly harrowing reminder that humanity is getting it dangerously wrong. Upon entering an intimate space crammed under the main body of Trafalgar Studios, the audience are cheerily told there will be an opportunity to eat cricket at the interval; as we sit down, an ominous projection states that “we need to produce more food globally by 2050 than we have done in the whole of human history”; and, over the next two hours, the cast of four are recycled in six different playwrights’ takes on the global food crisis, which vary in horror, humour, lightness, darkness, ridiculousness, seriousness and, of course, quality.
Organica by Pedro Miguel Rozo tells of idealistic Ruth’s decision to start an organic carrot farm in the Columbian countryside, much to the disappointment of her father, who thinks her stupid. In reaction to the remnants of war that she finds beneath the soil she loves, her moral simplicity does more harm than good. She realises her father was right: she should “grow up”. And so she should – but what do organic carrots have to do with misunderstanding the complexities of conflict? Is Organica a tirade against all green warriors or just the harmfully naïve? The problem is that I just don’t know what it was trying to say, but am certain we need more people caring enough to try to change things, not fewer. Isn’t that the whole point of Mouthful?
Chocolate is written by Bola Agbaje and features the most realistically greedy and lazy character in Mouthful. Rashida could not be more different to Ruth, though both are played by Alisha Bailey – a testament to her excellent range – and are both bloated stereotypes. Weight-obsessed Rashida whines to her weight-lifting boyfriend Steven that she is fat; he tells her to stop eating chocolate; she tells him to shut up as it is her “time of the month”. A genuinely amusing argument begins. Like chocolate, it’s sweet but nothing special. Bread on the Table by Lydia Adetunji, however, is a harrowing piece with two wildly opposing scenes played in tandem, both centred on a baguette sat upon a coolly lit table. In Tunisia, Tahar returns to his starving wife and baby, ashamed to be carrying only one baguette. In London, desperate Adam is not-so-slickly wining and dining Mason to convince her to invest in wheat, getting increasingly flustered about the inferior service and the pitifulness of the one baguette offered. It is an image hard-hitting enough to strike the audience into stillness, played with a beauty and sensitivity to match.
The Protectors by Clara Bayley launches us into a dystopian future where a tyrannical government uses disturbing measures to tackle the food crisis. It is tense, exciting and, at times, heart-warming. Yet sometimes it propels us too far into ridiculousness – set in 2040, a lot apparently happens in 25 years. After the cricket-laden interval, we are apparently not yet free of eating bugs, as the cast strut onto stage dressed as crickets singing ‘Try Me’. It is a misleading session of relaxation, laughter and a catchy tune before an even more bitter second half. 16 Pounds by Neil LaBute is a sickening yet horrifically mesmerising imagining of a future humanity at its most cruel. As one of the few in the world with a water supply, DiDi can do as she pleases to the desperately thirsty GoGo. She subjects him to demeaning conditions; holds up a cool, clear glass of water and spills his hope all over the floor as he whimpers; and tortures him over his daughter’s rape, his son’s death and the two measly containers of water he sacrificed them for. Like a lion tearing apart its prey with long-honed skill, Alisha Bailey is impossible to look away from. Robert Hands plays that prey as it should be played: pitiful, powerless and impossible to save.
Turned by Inua Ellams has a power unrivalled by the other pieces. Perhaps it is the simple, unassuming storytelling that leaves the audience so silent – or the triumphant acting both by Harry Lister Smith as the adorable, enthusiastic Sebastien, and Doña Croll as the wounded, determined Halima. Or maybe it is the poetic script: “Isah say all the cattle will die, he must get land back. Isah say he won’t let his mama starve…” Regardless of the source of its magic, Turned is a proud finish to an important collection that, though mainly comfortable in its professionalism, is amateurish in its more strange choices. For example, its decision to sometimes – but not always – use accents, and to select pieces with mixed tones that, when taken together, leave the audience a little confused. However, perhaps that confusion is appropriate: humanity really is in an uncertain, indecisive mess.
Mouthful is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 3 October. For more information and tickets, see the ATG tickets website.