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Review: Hunger at Arcola Theatre

PUBLISHED: 15:33 28 November 2019 | UPDATED: 15:33 28 November 2019

Katie Eldred and Kwami Odoom in Hunger at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner.

Katie Eldred and Kwami Odoom in Hunger at Arcola Theatre. Picture: Alex Brenner.

(c) Alex Brenner

In any country, any city, any century, people can, and do, end up starving on the streets. Hunger is based on a semi-autobiographical novel written over 100 years ago by a Norwegian called Knut Hamsun.

Never heard of him? It's not surprising if you haven't: he won the Nobel Prize in 1920 and then presented it to the Nazi party...

Along with other popular writers of the time, Hamsun was part of the reaction to the naturalism of that giant of Norwegian theatre, Henrik Ibsen. They pioneered psychological realism, stream of consciousness and interior monologues - not easy on stage.

This play concerns a young would-be writer who, clearly, has some talent. But a series of disasters, exacerbated by city life, and by his own personality, prevent him from progressing. Penniless and crazed with hunger, his health failing, he loses all hope.

Kwami Odoom interprets this complex and difficult part with insight and passion. He is supported by a small and hard-working cast, representing the multifarious inhabitants of a busy city. Using expressionistic body-language, they give glimpses into their lives and personalities. Dashing to and fro across the stage, they change costumes with astonishing speed - to indicate the variety of characters they are portraying.

Unfortunately, the costumes (designed by Anna Kezia Williams) are so similar to each other in colour (grey, mostly) and style, that the characters continue to look more or less the same as they did before. Similarly, the composite set, which could illustrate something of the interior thoughts and moods of the characters, is minimal and makeshift. I am sure there are valid reasons for the prevailing greyness of the design, but this was not obvious.

Because a writer, with privileged access to the interior thoughts and feelings of characters, uses techniques remote from those of a playwright, who is skilled with words, plots and subtext, adaptations from novel to play need to be more radical than in this version, by Amanda Lomas. However, this is a timely play with plenty to say about present-day society, and which introduces a once-celebrated writer to new audiences.

Rating: 2/5.

Continues until December 21. More details and tickets here.

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