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Tim Winter

Review: HUNGER at the Arcola Theatre

Hunger - Arcola Theatre The Norwegian Hamsun wrote 'Hunger' in 1890, before he won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1920) and before he threw his weight behind the Nazi project in the 30's and, unrepentant to the last, wrote a eulogy for Hitler a week after the tyrant's death, claiming "He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations". Ouch...

So, unsurprisingly when this new adaptation of Knut Hamsun's early novel 'Hunger' was announced, the Arcola Theatre sent out a press release stating that they knew Hamsun was a controversial figure but promised us a production with compassion and humanity that would exist "on its own terms, and in a different form and time" They've managed that quite well.

The novel tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young writer's descent towards madness due to poverty and hunger in the Norwegian capital, and is written as an internal monologue. Amanda Lomas' adaptation opens this out to include an Ensemble of three actors, playing multiple roles who interact with the central character.

We first encounter him as an impoverished student, struggling to buy a round for his friends. Desperate for money, he tries to find work, any work, but his lack of experience and, later, his over qualification for menial labour as a graduate, get in the way. He manages to sell an article to a newspaper but this is a false dawn and he's thrown out of his lodgings. He pawns everything he has of any worth, sleeps rough, starves, refuses help when it's offered and rails at a God he's not sure he believes in for his predicament.

By making his interactions with the world 'real' with the use of the Ensemble, rather than existential, the production treads an awkward line.

Some characters, the Pawnbroker, the Landlady, the Editor and the Best Friend interact with our anti-hero quite naturalistically, and their concern, anger or confusion is understandable. Others, Ylajali - the mysterious woman disgusted at his poverty - the couple he keeps bumping into while they're trying to make love, the policewoman who kindly locks him in a cell for some shelter, seem to come straight from his diseased, disturbed mind.

As the Young Man, Kwami Odoom, fresh from the National's massive hit Barber Shop Chronicles, is compulsively watchable. I was more convinced by his early, charming, naive persona than the later knuckle-chewing, manic, God-bothering wreck he becomes but he takes us on the journey he's given and never underplays the more unpleasant aspects of the character.

One thing kept bothering me all night, though, and that was his costume. From the opening scene his friends comment on how scruffy he looks, his clothes are referenced throughout as getting tattier, he should, surely, be in rags by the end, reflecting his state of mind and his rough sleeping but he remains in neatly pressed, smart casuals.

The Ensemble, Archie Backhouse, Katie Eldred and Jessica Tomlinson cope admirably with multiple roles and various regional accents. It's all played and directed with energy and fluidity. Fay Lomas, with help from Movement Director Natasha Harrison expertly utilise the small space and minimal set.

I Loved the cracked mind flooring, lighting up at times of major stress, and the music, by Lex Kosanke, is excellent.

All in all HUNGER is an absorbing glimpse into a disturbed mind as it unravels.