Starved: Q&A with Michael Black

Following a short run at the Bread and Roses in May, Michael Black’s award-nominated play, Starved, transfers to the Hope Theatre next month. A grimly realistic portrayal of life below the poverty line, the third production from new writing company Faded Ink is directed by Matt Strachan, with Michael reprising his role as Lad alongside Alana Connaughton’s Lass.

The Starved team will be hoping to repeat the success of the show’s previous run, which earned several five-star reviews and a nomination for London Pub Theatre’s Standing Ovation Award. Michael chatted to Theatre Things about introducing Lass and Lad to new audiences, and why it’s so important for people to hear their story.

Can you sum up briefly what Starved is all about?

Starved is a two-hander set in a scruffy bedsit on a council estate in Hull. It’s a character driven story about a couple on the run, with hard hitting themes such as mental health, poverty, addiction, toxic relationships. Starved also has a lot of comedy, fast paced and witty Yorkshire humour.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

The play is semi-autobiographical and based on my life growing up in Hull. I wanted to really turn the heat up on these characters and look at what people can be driven to when they feel isolated. When they feel like they have no meaningful purpose or place in society. Starved is based on things I’ve heard, seen, been through, but taken to that extreme.

Why do you feel is this story an important one for you to tell, and for a London audience to hear? And why is now the right time to tell it?

I wanted to put a Northern working class story on a London stage. The North of England feels under represented in Theatre, which is a shame because the people I’ve met and stories I’ve heard would make for really gripping and exciting new work. People I’ve spoken to are feeling scared, alone, pissed off, not listened to, ignored etc, especially in areas like where I grew up. I feel a story such as Starved can help break that London bubble slightly and show that there is a whole other way that people are forced to live, which might go some way in explaining the current divide.

What do you hope that audiences will take away from seeing the play?

I hope a sense of understanding that there are people out there that are having a really shit time of it. If we can be more compassionate towards those that have fallen under then hopefully we can start a conversation about how we can work together to see eye to eye. Also, I hope it’s refreshing to see a play set in Hull.

What are you most looking forward to about reviving the play at the Hope?

Really excited to work with a new group of people, we’ve got new designers and stage manager etc so looking forward to collaborating with them. Also, for new audiences to see the show and to just get back out there and see where it takes us.

Did you always want to be a playwright, and if not what was it that first sparked your interest in theatre?

I always had an interest in writing as a kid, I’d write episodes of The Simpsons and short stories. But it wasn’t until I moved to London to train as an actor that I really started to combine the two and realised that I had some stories in me that were worth telling.

On a related note, how did Faded Ink get started as a company, and how would you describe your mission?

Faded Ink was founded with the aim of producing high quality work that reflects working class backgrounds. We want to perform stories which represent communities that are not regularly touched upon in the theatre. Bringing something raw, passionate and based on personal experience to our work.

Book now for Starved at The Hope Theatre, 16th July to 3rd August.

Director: Matt Strachan

Cast: Michael Black and Alana Connaughton

Review: Starved at the Bread and Roses Theatre

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.

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