REVIEW: Starved – An unapologetically gritty look at the complexities of a toxic relationship

Michael Black and Alana Connaughton as Lad and Lass in Starved – Photo Credit: lhphotoshots

Venue: The Hope Theatre

Performance Date: 19 July 2019

Star Rating: ★★★★

In the round of the intimate space of The Hope Theatre, audiences are being immersed into the desperately toxic and complex relationship of a couple on the run, although from what is initially unclear. Known only as Lad and Lass, the pair are holed up on one of Hull’s roughest estates, squatting in a crummy bedsit where they are surviving on a diet of stolen cup-a-soups, cheap vodka and roll-up cigarettes.

With only each other for company, this two-hander places a microscope over their toxic relationship. Over the course of sixty minutes, their relationship is deconstructed as the strain of their current situation becomes unbearable.

Starved is written by Michael Black, who also stars in the production as the outwardly manipulative and short-fused Lad. This Faded Ink production, under the direction of Matt Strachan, enjoyed a hugely successful run at The Bread and Roses Theatre earlier in the year before coming to The Hope Theatre.

Esteniah Williams’ design is incredibly detailed and the dirty and claustrophobic bedsit is framed by a web-like, roped cage. Inside are a filthy single mattress and a space littered with dirty pizza boxes and rubbish. From the moment you enter the space, the actors are on stage and in character making it feel like you are a voyeur to their misery. The imagery couldn’t be more striking as the set design acts a literal and figurative prison from which the two are struggling to escape. Aiden Bromley’s lighting design further heightens the effect and that, coupled with Nicola Chang’s sound design provide moments of sensory depravation.

There is nowhere to hide in the intimate space and the audience is forced to observe their dank and inhumane habitat deep in the knowledge this is how far too many people live. Not only are they starving, they have no sanitary products for a menstruating Lass, a moment in the piece which is uncomfortable but also incredibly and powerfully resonant as an issue faced by any female who may find herself homeless.

Alana Connaughton provides a deeply moving turn as the conflicted Lass. She holds absolutely nothing back as she delivers her character’s arc. Trapped by circumstance, with seemingly nowhere to turn her character embodiment is heartbreakingly painful as she desperately dreams of freeing herself from the status quo. As the play progresses her emotions spiral and she begins to climb the walls as the situation heightens. Connaughton’s commitment to the role should be congratulated, her pain and frustration are palpable and in a space as small as the Hope, this level of emotion can’t be simulated.

Although Lass is seemingly the more vulnerable of the two, the pair are as bad as each other. Buttons are pushed at will and insults are hurled as the toxicity of the relationship comes to a head. Michael Black is outstanding as the manipulative Lad. Short-tempered, spiteful and cruel he is incredibly controlling, possessive and jealous. Black is eerily believable in the role, with every line delivered with toe-curling authenticity. Whilst he clearly has a dark side, his underlying affection for Lass just about stops the character from descending to a point of no return. Despite the darkness of the piece, there are unexpected moments of light-heartedness, one of which involves a fight with a can of tomato soup and a debate over the hierarchy of biscuits.

There is no happy resolution to the play, rather a groundhog day conclusion where the piece ends as it starts. Despite only being sixty minutes long Starved packs a short, sharp punch and holds a magnifying glass up to incredibly serious themes of mental health and homelessness. Starved is cleverly written, unapologetically gritty and provides an unforgiving look at how circumstance can fuel toxicity making an unbearable situation feel insurmountable.

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