In choosing to adapt Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger (1890) for the stage, writer Amanda Lomas puts much faith in what she calls the ‘enduring universality of its theme’. Tracing a young man’s descent into poverty in an unforgiving city, the story does have familiar arcs, but in straddling the line between social commentary and outright interiority, the slipperiness of this ‘universality’ leads to a patchy retelling.
Kwami Odoom performs strongly as the unnamed struggling writer. Initially filled with warmth and aspiration, debt piles up and friendships fade as biting cold and despair set in. An ensemble of Katie Eldred, Archie Backhouse and Jessica Tomlinson play a frenzy of roles around him — ranging from a suspicious police officer to a sinister wealthy couple.
What’s most striking here is the number of times that care could be given, but isn’t. In an east London theatre surrounded by rising homelessness, rents and social discrimination, Hamsun’s themes do carry a modern punch, but the script often clings to repeated interactions which frustrate the story’s psychological elements — the man’s search for a job being the main one.
Without a geographical location or era to place the play, society’s unfairness feels unmoored. A single line alludes to racial discrimination, and there is a nod to soaring rents, but otherwise, the script struggles in its critique — perhaps in parts it is too universal.
When the man opts to take refuge in a police cell rather than on the streets, the darkened stage reveals the most gripping passages; from these, we want further insight into the man’s fractured mentality. Lex Kosanke’s score is sharp and arresting, while the ensemble’s movement during interludes proves that the production can depict psychosis without relying solely on dialogue.
Hunger is ambitious, but Fay Lomas’ production exists in limbo. Committing further to the interior abyss that accompanies misfortune would work — as Enda Walsh’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers has shown, embracing the chaos can transform these darker novels while captivating audiences.