“We need to produce more food globally by 2050 than we have done in the whole of human history. This will require 120% more water, 42% more cropland, a loss of 14% more forest.”
This message greets the audience filing in for Mouthful, which is really more of a mountain of plays in terms of what it sets out to achieve. It’s a broad series of plays, but I deduce the overarching theme is this: there is a global food crisis – how do we respond to this?
Comprising six plays in one evening, plus a musical theatre number, the transition from one play to another is made seamless by immersive scene changes containing relevant facts to the production. These include: a) Three-quarters of the UK population will be obese by 2020. b) To produce each British person’s food intake for one calendar day requires 2231 litres of rainfall. c) 1 tonne of water is required to produce 1 steak.
I went in with some initial scepticism of a theatrical project like this, and wondered if any proposals to tackle the problem would be viable. I must admit that I personally struggle to take the green lobby very seriously. Some environmentalists’ behaviour over the years has been either abhorrent or bizarre (or both), and therefore damaging to the causes they claim to represent. In the first of six plays, Pedro Miguel Rozo’s Organica, Ruth (Alisha Bailey) is one of those rather irritating crusaders.
From the very first lines of dialogue, she blinds the audience with jargon, with talk of certain chemicals, enzymes and ingredients existing in staple food products, before later asserting, “We are what we eat”, whatever that means (I cannot see how I could actually be a BLT sandwich). She does not, like the stubborn green lobby tends to be, listen to any sound advice from her father Roberto (Robert Hands). Failing also to discern properly the volatile political situation in her country, she invests in some land in order to grow crops but the whole plan goes seriously awry. Her style of worship of Mother Earth is not unlike a fanatical satellite television evangelist; arguably irrationally, she attributes absolutely everything, including economics, to Mother Earth’s blessing or curse dependent on whether something is good or bad. She rigorously refutes every term of endearment given to her by other characters, even criticising Federico (Harry Lister Smith) for calling her ‘sweetheart’. In the end, there is little sympathy for Ruth, and it dawned on me as this play drew to a close that Mouthful is a pragmatic piece of theatre, telling it like it is, and not dressing things up or being overly biased.
In London, meanwhile, Rashida (Alisha Bailey) is unconcerned about rising confectionery prices. Bola Agbaje’s Chocolate is a welcome comedy after the intensity of the previous play. It’s Rashida’s boyfriend, Steven (Harry Lister Smith) who extols the benefits of the Fairtrade movement. It’s rather like a Richard Curtis comedy, using a light-hearted approach but also emotively including a more pertinent and serious point. For instance, Rashida apparently consumes so much chocolate that Steven muses she is personally ensuring that demand is outstripping supply of cocoa. She reacts with believable aplomb, and as the conversation continues, the punchlines keep coming. It’s a hoot.
Lydia Adetunji’s Bread on the Table is, I think, the most ambitious piece of the evening. The humour continues, at least initially, in the form of misunderstandings between Adam (Harry Lister Smith) who is attempting to do a business deal with Mason (Doña Croll). For me, this is also the most revealing play of the lot – but it would be rather too revealing to say precisely why. Suffice to say, it’s thoroughly absorbing, particularly as the action switches between an industrialised city and a developing nation. In the latter, Tahar (Robert Hands) and Leila (Alisha Bailey) find themselves begging for bread. All Tahar wants to do is feed his family, while Adam’s own livelihood is at serious risk, because the company he works for is downsizing, and he’s in a redundancy pool. It’s severe, but again, all entirely plausible.
In Clare Bayley’s The Protectors it is imagined that the global food situation in 2015 was allowed to continue largely unchanged; Neil LaBute’s 16 Pounds does the same. A generation later, much has changed. In the former play, Dinah (Alisha Bailey) mistakes potatoes, now very rare anywhere in the world, for ‘mud and stones’, and if that’s bad the absurdly named GoGo (Robert Hands) has turned his children over to the Government for them to do what they wish with them, in return for sixteen pounds (hence the play’s title)… of water, a commodity now so scarce the whole world is slowly dehydrating. Hands is mesmerising as the soft-spoken family man, and it’s impossible not to feel empathy for his character as the Government won’t let him take home some water without an intrusive cross-examination first.
Not satisfied with six plays, Mouthful includes Try Me in its repertoire, an attempt to persuade the audience to eat insects as a food (through song, I mean, in case anyone got the idea that plates were passed around the auditorium). Poppy Burton-Morgan’s lyrics are clever and witty without being too academic. It’s a sort of Stephen Sondheim / Jerry Herman mash up. In fact, the mash up goes further than that, with an ode to the musical Wicked in the line “no one mourns the cricket” (the insect, not the sport), and another to Les Miserables, because you need not consume insects… on your own. Those who enjoy plays but not musicals were nonplussed by the laughter of the rest of the audience, but the main message got through to all.
Mouthful saves the best for last, in Inua Ellams’ Turned. For all the sophisticated projections between and within the plays and the technological wizardry involved in presenting some hard core truths in an easily digestible manner (graphics galore!), it’s the good old fashioned storytelling that triumphs. Harry Lister Smith seemed most comfortable in the role of Sebastian than in any other part over the course of the evening, with such a stirring and moving narrative that captivated the audience from beginning to end. Doña Croll as Halima, the mother of Sebastian’s late university friend, puts in a solid and authoritative performance – the character shows astonishing resilience in the face of very trying circumstances. Both were an absolute delight to listen to, and their characters’ face-to-face meeting was one of the most riveting conversations I have ever had the privilege of seeing unravel on stage.
And then the whole thing was all over far too soon. Mouthful does not claim to have all the answers, but successfully demonstrates the enormity, both in depth and breadth, of the unsustainable status quo. It’s also brave enough to subtly persuade its audiences to think about what we can all do in response, rather than merely get angry about inter-governmental apathy.
It could have been an exhausting evening, with each play being set up and the audience just getting into the story, before jarring scene changes. But the plays are kept short, are not complicated by too many characters and are performed in their entirety without switching between the plays. I found this incredibly helpful. Mouthful is a masterclass in collaboration, positively stretching the boundaries of what theatre can achieve, and I highly recommend this varied collection of stories providing, as it were, food for thought.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mouthful at Trafalgar Studio Two
By: Lydia Adetunji, Bola Agbaje, Clare Bayley, Inua Ellams, Neil LaBute and Pedro Miguel Rozo
Cast: Alisha Bailey, Doña Croll, Robert Hands and Harry Lister Smith
Director: Poppy Burton-Morgan; Set, Video and Lighting Design: William Reynolds
Costumes: Charlotte Espiner
Supported by Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust Metta Theatre today announces the world première of Mouthful, the centrepiece of their 10th anniversary celebrations. Mouthful is a darkly comic and at times heartbreaking response to the global food crisis through six brand new plays from six of the world’s leading dramatists – Lydia Adetunji, Bola Agbaje, Clare Bayley, Inua Ellams, Neil LaBute and Pedro Miguel Rozo. The playwrights, with support from a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, have teamed up with six world-renowned scientists – Professors Tim Benton, Kamal Bawa, Suzanne Filteau, Ilkka Hanski, Molly Jahn and Tim Lang to collaborate on this politically provocative and theatrically imaginative production.
UK Champion for Global Food Security Professor Tim Benton said today “Our food impacts on our health and well-being, the planet’s well-being and our eating habits affect the livelihoods of others throughout the world. Mouthful innovatively explores our food system and the way our demand may affect our futures.”
Sebastian (Harry Lister Smith) is travelling halfway around the world to find his steak-loving friend who’s missing in Nigeria, while Rashida (Alisha Bailey) just wants to eat her bar of chocolate in peace. GoGo (Robert Hands) is sacrificing everything for a glass of water and Erica (Dona Croll) is trying to win round her daughter’s affections with a rare delicacy – the last potato. But whatever you do don’t try one of Ruth’s carrots…
Mouthful was created by playwrights Lydia Adetunji (Catherine Johnson Award for Compliance). There will also be a series of post show discussions with Mouthful’s scientific advisors and other key speakers throughout the run.
Booking to 3rd October 2015
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 3.00pm
Saturday 12th September 2015