Michael Black’s two-hander Starved is a quietly challenging and impactful play, which provides an eye-opening insight into what it’s like to live in poverty in Britain today. Lad (Michael Black) and Lass (Alana Connaughton) are on the run – though from what we don’t find out until later – and they’ve ended up squatting in a bedsit on a rough housing estate in Hull. Forced to live on whatever he can nick from the local shop, and in constant fear of being discovered, their relationship grows increasingly toxic until eventually they’re forced to decide if the life they have is actually worth living.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we (by which I mean those of us fortunate enough never to have experienced it) all have preconceived ideas of what poverty means. Starved tackles those assumptions and challenges us to broaden our view; despite the play’s title, the characters’ lack of resources and the physical hunger they suffer as a result is just one of their problems. Alcohol dependency, period poverty, and the sheer mind-numbing boredom of being stuck indoors living on Cup A Soup day in day out, all contribute to a slowly building tension between the two young people, each of whom is already vulnerable enough in their own way. Alienated from their families and with nobody else to turn to, they cling to each other – even though it’s painfully obvious that their relationship is doing neither of them any good.
That feeling of being trapped is captured very effectively in the set design for Matt Strachan’s production, which wraps the characters and their squalid bedsit in a spider’s web, with just one small window through which to observe the world outside. This also means there’s a constant barrier between the audience and the characters, which heightens the overwhelming sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
Both Alana Connaughton and Michael Black are excellent, delivering the fast-paced dialogue very naturally – the one downside of this being that at times it’s difficult to catch what each of them is saying, as they talk over each other and mutter asides. We can easily believe in them as a young couple who love and care for each other, but equally as two damaged individuals driven by their circumstances to lash out. They’re both complex and flawed characters, but Lad is easily the more difficult of the two to like – he insists on Lass’s gratitude for all his efforts on her behalf, but refuses to make any concessions himself; the period scene is particularly difficult to watch, and you frequently get the sense that Lass may have simply traded one abusive relationship for another.
Starved is billed as a dark comedy, and while that’s an accurate description – there are some great one-liners scattered throughout – ultimately, there’s very little to laugh about in this grimly realistic portrayal of life below the poverty line. At just under an hour it’s a short play, but one that manages to provide plenty of food for thought during its brief running time. And although it doesn’t come to a dramatic climax, the story and its characters still make a powerful and lasting impact.
Starved is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 11th May.
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