Hunger explores how bodily hunger affects every aspect of an individual’s existence. This thought-provoking play (adapted for the stage by Amanda Lomas) shows how it conspires to drag people into a toxic set of circumstances which make it even harder to escape. A Young Man (Kwami Odoom) leaves his family to come to the city to become a writer. But with no experience, no real skill and no contacts, he is forced to rely on his own internal resources: charm, tenacity and a cheerful acceptance of hunger as being the temporary price of following his dream. With no work forthcoming, he starts to sell his possessions to pay his rent, including his own coat and glasses. At each turn, he loses out: no coat shows how skinny he is, so he’s rejected for a labouring job. Without glasses, and distracted by an empty belly, he makes a mistake in his application for a book-keeping job.

Odoom’s portrayal of the Young Man is engaging, and to watch his string of bad luck is painful. Finally, he gets a break and sells a newspaper article, but it’s not enough to pay his rent arrears, and he’s too distracted by hunger to act on the advice given to him by the editor. Eventually, he becomes homeless and his increasing social isolation is compounded by mental health issues. The audience is kept on edge as bad luck turns into self-sabotage. The incredible number of supporting characters are played superbly by Katie Eldred, Archie Backhouse and Jessica Tomlinson, with a dazzling display of accents and physicality.

Hunger is not an easy watch, but it is rewarding. The muted set by Anna Kezia Williams makes clever use of shadows, and is lit up like brain activity when the Young Man is particularly pained. For a story that appeared 130 years ago, it remains strikingly, shamingly relevant today.

Until 21 December at the Arcola Theatre, London.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner