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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Adapted by Amanda Lomas, directed by Fay Lomas, designed by Anna Kezia Williams and lit by Rajiv Pattani. Composed by Lex Kosanke, Movement Director Natasha Harrison with Georgina Makhubele and Assistant Director Lydia McKinley.


Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) the greatest Norwegian writer after Ibsen, was a singularly difficult man. Perhaps that pervades both his 1890 novel Hunger here superbly adapted by Amanda Lomas – and his even greater masterpiece Mysteries of 1894. But he was also the greatest proto-modernist of the 1890s, living past his own genius. Everyone’s indebted to him.

What Lomas achieves though – in this 75-minute adaptation – is to project all Hamsun’s stream-of-consciousness, widening that monomaniac stare and monologuing the four actors humanize, to amplify his experience. And make it chillingly contemporary. Now, more than at any time since the 1890s, students will do anything to avoid penury It’s a time when young women students assent under duress to sex with their landlords; when people go hungry, quite often commit suicide. It’s the world with a few pointed references to Hunger’s origins, we recognize as now. Lomas strips down context – though leaves its essentials – and what we get is stream-of-consciousness as ballet.

‘A herring?’ Is that what it is? He hasn’t a clue. Kwami Odoom looks haunted from the start and enacts the shadowy obsessiveness that marks out this young student writer as a misfit: a hick from the hills, with no business attending university in a city, a misfit narrowly obsessed with writing crossed with penury.

The anonymous Young Man’s perpetually hungry, first seen withdrawing from student friends when he realizes they want to do drink rounds. Soon he pawns his coat and spectacles – which have already lost him that job requiring muscularity clear sight and knowing how to gut fish; a bit of a Norwegian standby. Every casual job he applies for is rejected. He nearly lands a bookkeeping job but one slip fells him. His landlady – one of Jessica Tomlinson’s hard-bitten roles – finally throws him out with most arrears intact, having given tough-tender love before. It’s guilt that pushes her over.

Hunger’s directed by Fay Lomas as if in a venturi tube, designed by Anna Kezia Williams with maximum mobility in the Arcola’s Studio 2 space. Backstage – it’s a mater of feet away – is a transparent screen where people shadow-play love and doubt. So lighting by Rajiv Pattani works with the spare set’s shadows and transparencies, the deeps and darks of a warehouse or street-lighting. The memorable string-plucked score enacting the counterpoint of bustle in this adaptation is composed by Lex Kosanke. And its physical twin bounces with Movement Director Natasha Harrison’s enormous clarity as the high-velocity pitch of living barges past the protagonist. It’s superbly realized assisted by Georgina Makhubele and the assistant director Lydia McKinley.

This movement direction is some of the most lucid and dazzling I’ve seen on a small stage, taut and fluid, like the writing, though here of course human amplitude scores to universalize these themes. The Young Man’s more befuddled than dark with egoic rage, as Hamsun’s anti-hero can seem.

There’s elisions too. The time when the Young Man hires a hall to give a lecture no-one comes to is one of those elements deleted. Thus the Young Man’s more youthful, less aspiring.

His one gambit is accosting Archie Backhouse’s editor, who takes on his first article and to the Young Man’s surprise announces it’s appearing the next day – it gives a fortnight’s rent, though this leads to a terminal altercation and after an extremely unpleasant few nights rough (Backhouse as fair policeman, vicious man kicking him because he wants to impress his girlfriend) we have one of the three epiphanies. Meanwhile a second article merely needs trimming, but the Young Man can’t bring himself to do even that.

After that first article, those three epiphanic acts of kindness are beautifully told. First, Tomlinson as a wharf-dweller indicates an empty warehouse where the writer can squat. Second Backhouse as old fellow student encountering the Young Man ad full of concern, pawns his own watch as he’s off for the vacation, thrusting money at his old acquaintance, and tells him to keep his blanket. Third, Backhouse as editor encounters him, asks him about his second article then thrusts some money telling him to write when we can. Alas the food the Young Man manages – an onion roll bought from Tomlinson’s bread-seller – is too rich to keep down as was a discarded orange.

Katie Eldred enjoys longer fewer roles. Not as girlfriend of the brute, but as a prostitute who plays Odoom’s hapless ex-student till he announces he’s skint. Most of all a young woman who takes a fancy to him, takes him home only to be put off by the Young Man’s admission of poverty. Like the landlady, she needs to justify her own change of heart by a sudden act of savage denunciation. Eldred’s poise and nuance creates a different atmosphere, and the two play off each character’s different fragility.

The Young Man’s solution is to return full circle, the fish swallowing its own tail.

Odoom moves from perplexity to desperation, including visceral moments with food. His rare radiant gratitude – to the editor, the woman who shows him where to stay, his old friend – contrast with an arc of excitement and pain he experiences with Eldred who slides from sexy to scorn indeed disgust in almost a blink. It’s the destablised self that Hamsun so presciently identified and which became a staple of 20th indeed 21st century literature.

Backhouse enjoys the widest gamut of characters, memorable when generous: the editor, student and darkening policeman whose desire to move the Young Man prods him into the warehouse. Backhouse though relishes the savage other, the anonymous hostility Odoom’s character shivers away from. Tomlinson’s nuances of sadness and bitter warmth further amplify the human condition around a man who doesn’t know how to bend or dissimulate.

It’s an exemplary, scrupulous production, shimmering with the dark alienation Hamsun first injected into us. More, its hardships are again so starkly contemporary that making it new – without any need to modernize or change any remaining detail – renders it contemporary forever.