Chris Bush is an ambitious playwright. Her three-play collection Rock/Paper/Scissors was performed across three stages at the same time to mark the Sheffield Crucible’s fiftieth anniversary earlier this year. Whilst her new play Hungry is not quite as grandiose in scale it still sizzles with ambition. But despite strong performances the play is overstuffed with themes. Perhaps the playwright has bitten off more than they can chew.
Anyone who has worked in a kitchen knows how suffocatingly intense they can be. An effervescent Eleanor Sutton translates this intensity of working kitchens to the stage as the franticly awkward chef Lori. She is loveable and charismatic, but her dorky charm is revealed to mask superciliousness; she wants to gentrify her waitress girlfriend Bex’s working class lifestyle. No more cheesy puffs, only tofu and wine. The ebbs and flows of their relationship are sliced and diced, served in non-chronological order, and pieced together one food orientated episode at a time.
The idea here is that food is the magnifying glass to reveal wider tensions about race, class, and social mobility, not just what it is but how it is eaten. It is certainly an interesting concept, but it feels unguided especially when it comes to the play’s often directionless moral compass.
Whilst Lori is pretentious, she recalls obnoxiously an anecdote about her first-time eating oysters whilst on holiday in France, she means no harm. Sutton’s performance is deeply compassionate, behind the skittish veneer is genuine affection; but Bush’s writing leaves Lori’s racist and classist microaggressions as undetermined and ambiguously motivated. But the audience condemn her regardless. They murmur disapprovingly at her suggestion of opening a restaurant serving “soul food”, appropriating cuisine from other cultures.
But any moral blame is offset by her naivety. Unfortunately, this goes undeveloped as meditations on grief, eating disorders, and relationships are also packed into the hour long run time. Whilst Bush is an undoubtedly talented playwright there are just too many ingredients thrown in for any flavours to flourish.
The lack of thematic development is not aided by the restless tone. Whilst brimming with energy, neither the dialogue nor the characters are ever given breathing room or time for reflection. Bex, played by an equally fiery Melissa Lowe, never diverts away from pouring searing vigour into every moment. Ferocity underlies every word she delivers to the point where the two are often playing an aggressive tennis match with each other armed with cutting words rather than racquets.
But the issue is that without tonal variation her protracted polemics are exhausting, especially in the intimate space of Soho Theatre’s upstairs stage. The questions that had previously lingered beneath the surface are thrown onto the table undigested in Hungry’s long monologues. Thankfully Katie Posner’s strong direction keeps the drama flowing. Her staging is sparse with Lowe and Sutton using two metal counters to slide back and forth between to mark new scenes. More poignantly it creates distance and intimacy between them as their relationship blossoms and wilts.
Paines Plough’s HUNGRY by Chris Bush will run at Soho Theatre until 30 July, before playing Roundabout in Summerhall at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 3-28 August. Full information can be found here.