A flimsy tale of self-pity and thwarted ambition: Hunger at the Arcola reviewed

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

Oh my God. The Nazis have invaded the Arcola Theatre. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsen won the Nobel Prize in 1920 and later became such an ardent fan of Hitler that he sent his Nobel gong to Goebbels as a token of his admiration. The Arcola admits these demerits in the programme notes. What it overlooks is the intriguing fact that some commentators credit Hamsen with inventing the stream of consciousness technique developed by James Joyce in Ulysses.

His breakthrough novel, Hunger, published in 1890, recounts his experiences as a penniless scribbler seeking work in the Norwegian capital. The protagonist in Fay Lomas’s engaging production is an archetype whom any professional writer will recognise: the unpublished hack who thinks he’s a genius. But, unlike most dreamy young wordsmiths, this chap is endowed with charm, cunning and indomitable self-belief.

He outsmarts an obstructive secretary at a national newspaper and barges into the editor’s office demanding that she read his latest piece. She rejects it. Uncowed, he pulls the same stunt at another newspaper where the editor agrees to publish his work and pays him the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent, about £500. Good going. It’s clear at this point that the ambitious youngster has precisely the qualities of guile and determination that would suit him to the role of salaried hack. But instead of becoming a reporter, he roams the streets looking for low-paid work while attempting to press his lengthy think pieces on reluctant publishers.

His odyssey, supposedly set in modern London, feels a bit odd. This is a city where grocers’ clerks perch on stools copying figures into ledgers, where landladies ask for rent in cash every week, where the streets at night are haunted by stroppy policemen twirling truncheons and by beautiful, fresh-faced prostitutes with hearts of gold. The false glister feels like a Sunday-night TV adaptation. The characters are either positive or negative, apart from the landlady, who starts off being nice but gets a bit shirty when her poet-in-residence fails to pay the rent. He gets booted out and ends up in the gutter pleading angrily against the fates that have mistreated him so badly. Shades of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov here.

The show is energetic, funny and handsomely put together. Kwami Odoom is immensely likeable in the lead role. And the director, Lomas, is clearly a rising star. But ultimately this is a flimsy tale of self-pity and thwarted ambition which a tabloid paper would summarise as ‘hack gets snubbed’.

The Arrival, written and directed by Bijan Sheibani, starts with two Iranians in a London bar discussing their shared background. Tom, 35, is a streetwise hustler. Samad, a few years younger, is an amiable nerd. But what is their relationship? The naturalistic dialogue, full of false starts and repetitions, presents the key information in a passage where they talk about scientists investigating their kinship. ‘This is pretty unusual you know to meet, to meet, a full… a full… yeah. You know [sibling]… Yeah.’

The brackets around ‘sibling’ are a stage direction instructing the actor to bear the enclosed word in mind but not to vocalise it. At press night that’s what happened. ‘Sibling’ was omitted and the audience merely heard them describe their relationship as, ‘full, a full, yeah, you know, yeah’. Some may have twigged that ‘sibling’ (or ‘brother’) was meant to follow ‘full’. I didn’t. I sat through the entire show ignorant of the set-up. Only later, while poring over the playscript, did I unearth the ‘pretty unusual’ back story. Tom, older by five years, was adopted by an English family but his Iranian parents stayed together and went on to have two more kids, Samad and a sister. Both won places at public school and went to Cambridge while poor old Tom was stuck in the local comp.

This highly improbable set-up has been arranged to deepen the social divisions between the brothers. Tom swiftly becomes dominant. He’s a charmer who moves into Samad’s life as a kind of guru. He takes him on jogging and cycling excursions where he easily outpaces his podgy rival. His plan is to get Samad to move into his flat and help pay the rent. Long-term, he suggests a shared mortgage and a joint ascent of the property ladder.

Then a bombshell. Samad gets engaged. This turns the relationship upside down. Samad, now boss, feels pressurised to ask the needy Tom to join his stag do. A hilarious scene follows as Samad, floundering badly, gives Tom a reluctant half-invitation. At the wedding, the tensions worsen. The two actors, Scott Karim (Tom) and Irfan Shamji, have been brilliantly cast. They give the jumpy, off-beat dialogue just the sort of unsettling nerviness it needs. At the curtain call, the house was on its feet. But was it really that sensational? Everyone seemed to think so except me.

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