The Food Chain

Mick Mahoney
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2003)

Mick Mahoney's two plays for the Royal Court have both had the appearance of scenes from soap operas. Food Chain may look and feel like that but it is also extremely funny. It features Birds of a Feather's Linda Robson making a rare stage appearance as Carol, a not very bright woman whose idea of cooking is crisps with everything.

The play, set in a modern living room, focuses on two families. Bigoted Tony (the very convincing Paul Ritter) and Carol, sympathetically played by Miss Robson, are well-to-do residents of the Angel. Tony thinks of himself as a jack-the-lad. As another character Nat says, he is one of the "cabbies pretending to be gangsters".

Tony may be a cabby but he and Carol are nouveau riche and spend their whole time talking about money and what they have bought with it.

They are excessively proud of their children and live vicariously through them. The unseen Alice is a former breakfast TV presenter who now does personal appearances. 16 year old Jamie (Sid Mitchell) is a child prodigy who talks like a white Rasta and behaves like a bully. He has appeared on CBBC and in EastEnders and The Bill and thinks that he is wonderful as he drops famous names; a real chip off the old block.

They have "adopted" single mother, Emma (Claire Rushbrook) and her son, Calum Callaghan's Billy who is fourteen. This means that they can patronise them outrageously and thus feel superior.

All goes well till one terrible night when they try to fix up the flighty Emma with a TV producer. To them this means exchanging her body for a part for their son. They are happy to prey on the Food Chain in this way. Similarly, they take it for granted that Billy will be bribed to take the blame for one of the psychopathically inadequate Jamie's schoolboy pranks.

Things liven up when Emma's husband, the rich, HIV positive, road-sweeping executive Nat, played very coolly by Justin Salinger, returns from rehab. He may have been a junkie but with his newly found religion comes a remarkable inner strength. Tony has no chance in their subsequent psychological joust.

The plot becomes more unlikely as the seemingly penniless bakery worker, Emma, turns out to have an uncle on the Sunday Times richest list. It soon transpires that the bullied family have untold wealth and have been running rings around their hosts. We never find out why they have put up with a year of humiliation from people that they deeply dislike.

Mahoney shows great wit, coming out with a number of really excellent one-liners. He also displays cruelty in the way that he exposes his inadequate creations to ridicule. There is a degree of really pleasurable schadenfreude in seeing the odious Tony bite the dust as his victims find happiness and flourish.

The plotting may be unlikely but perhaps this is intended as a satire on reality TV and soaps, as it has a kind of fly on the wall voyeuristic feel. This may be unimportant as, under Anna Mackmin's direction, this well-cast portrait of Islington uglies (rather than luvvies) provides great entertainment and even a little social comment.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Reviewer: Philip Fisher