“sometimes funny, but mostly heart-breaking, and brilliantly told”
It seems mad that something so silly as lunch can be so heated and rich in discussion, but it is. Somehow it draws in everything else that’s important: Family, culture, politics, self-worth. Everything can be got at by discussing what you just ate, be it a chicken nugget or an oyster. And in the case of Hungry, it’s both a chicken nugget and an oyster.
Lori, a highly strung chef, hires Bex as a waiter, and from their first day, there’s a pull between them. Both could talk for England, and both are bold and vivacious. But Lori shows her love by wanting to show Bex what she’s missing; all the finer things, “Chicken nuggets are not special, your life is not special. But it should be.” And whilst Bex knows there’s something wrong about this, she struggles to name it, particularly when Lori is so impassioned and enthusiastic.
This is not a story about goodies versus baddies. It’s about the good intentions of a white woman being misguided and patronising; a clash of heritage- both class and race. And, as a white audience member, that makes it both very uncomfortable to watch and very necessary. Because it’s uncomfortable when someone looks you in the eye, and gently but firmly tells you you’re wrong.
Writer Chris Bush has a way of writing dialogue that is simultaneously vernacular and rhapsodic, incorporating the personal with the political, so you never feel the characters are simply mouthpieces for a more important message. The first few scenes feel a bit manic, but the energetic characters can account for that, plus it’s a lot to fit in to 70 minutes, and presumably Bush wanted to get a wiggle on.
Two metal trolley tables act as pretty much the whole set. Slamming together at the beginning of a scene, or moving gently apart, they serve as worktop, kitchen table, bedframe, battleground. With two such strong characters, there’s really no need for much else, and the simplicity of Lydia Denno’s design means that, for example, when Bex starts stamping on crisp packets and throwing crisps around like confetti, it’s all the more affecting.
Melissa Lowe and Eleanor Sutton are electric together, matched in spirit and quality of performance. Their timing is immaculate, interrupting and withholding in exquisite tandem. Both roles are difficult in their own ways: Lowe’s Bex is mouthy and quick-witted, but she’s on the back foot in this relationship, which seems a strange amalgam in theory, but makes perfect sense in this performance. Similarly, Sutton’s Lori is nervous and neurotic, but she holds the power. Her arguments are thoughtful and persuasive, and yet deeply problematic- a difficult balance to pull off without seeming disingenuous.
This isn’t really about food, but food is the perfect vehicle for its message, because it is both universal, and personal; unifying and segregating. In short, it’s complicated and important, as is the story of Hungry, sometimes funny, but mostly heart-breaking, and brilliantly told.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by The Other Richard
Soho Theatre until 30th July ahead of Edinburgh Festival Fringe 3rd-28th August
“There’s a lot to like in the gentleness of Steiner’s script, but it’s a slow burn that’s really too slow”
In a time of political chaos, social turmoil, and environmental catastrophe, it’s easy to feel like the end of the world is right around the corner. It’s no surprise apocalypse stories feel particularly relevant right now.
Sam Steiner’s play, directed by James Grieve, is set in a future, disintegrating Britain. People are more-or-less keeping calm and carrying on despite toxic air, power outages, bridges collapsing, and buildings crumbling. The disaster is never specified – we don’t know whether this is the aftermath of WWIII, the effects of unchecked climate change, or both – but we do know trees are falling and the sea has turned viscous.
Four volunteers meet in a dilapidated call centre one night a week to run an emotional support helpline. Their job is to provide reassurance, although they’re barely holding it together themselves. On top of the world falling apart, Frances (Jenni Maitland) is heavily pregnant at a time when pregnancy is considered misguided or radically optimistic. Jon (Andy Rush) is going through a rough patch in his marriage. Angie (Lydia Larson) makes the best of her difficult upbringing. Joey (Andrew Finnigan), seventeen years old, is facing what feels like a pointless question of applying for university.
It may sound bleak, but Steiner handles the dark subject matter with a refreshingly light touch. While the apocalypse rages outside, the Brightline volunteers do their best to simply get on with the day. They hang up their gas masks when they arrive, attempt to make coffee without a working kettle, deal with perverts on the phones, and reluctantly participate in Frances’ positivity exercises.
The play is a series of small moments. Steiner gives us little window-like scenes through which we see the characters try to make connections with the people on the phones and each other, conversations hinting at personal lives and troubles beyond the office walls. There’s a lot to like in the gentleness of Steiner’s script, but it’s a slow burn that’s really too slow. Without much in the way of story, the two-hour runtime feels very long. Steiner’s scenes may be delicate and perceptive, but they lack momentum. And while the characters are strong, and well-performed by a talented cast, the show needs the backbone of a plot to help support its length.
Amy Jane Cook’s astute design presents the call centre as a little haven from the desolation outside, held together purely by blind optimism and denial. Everywhere signs of deterioration are refusing to be acknowledged. Gaping holes in the walls are covered up by motivational posters. Frances stubbornly tacks them back up each time they fall down. A whiteboard enthusiastically displays the word of the week (‘Communication’ ‘Optimism’). Intense storm winds blowing snow-like debris occasionally blast open the door. When the call centre floods, the stage fills with water. But when Frances fills the space with candles, the scene conveys a powerful sense of hope. The message of perseverance, resilience, and hope, no matter how irrational, will undoubtedly resonate with anyone feeling overwhelmed by the world today.
You Stupid Darkness! is a show full of heart and humour about the end of the world. A distinctive, insightful script with something to say – it’s a shame it’s missing a trick.