Food for thought

Kay Adshead (writer), Lisa Goldman (director) Bites Monday to Saturday, 8pm (ends February 5), Bush Theatre, Shepherds Bush, London W12. Box office: 0207 610 4224. £13.50 (£9 concessions)

Kay Adshead's new play takes the form of a seven-course meal. Each course is separate and distinct, but elements overlap, interlink and move towards creating a single theatrical experience. Adshead and her director, Lisa Goldman, take the five actors in their kitchen and, like chefs, mix them, add spice, shift and change their characters and bring them to the boil in different socio-political settings. The result is a series of post-9/11 morality plays, which in the process of unfolding, one after the other, highlight the topology of uneven development, the oppression of women and the complexity of human behaviour - greedy, courageous, curious, tender, generous, desperate, funny, fearful, macabre. Similar metaphorical devices have been widely used in theatre, film and literature. A menu provides the writer/director and the reader/audience with a universal and readily understood framework. We all eat ... and how and what we eat reveals a great deal about us and our circumstances. Eg, in feudal England the Saxon villain laboured from dawn to dusk to raise cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep; subsequently, however, it was the Norman aristocrats and their parasitic retainers who were presented with hunks of juicy beef, pork, poultry and mutton. The living beast has an English name, the cooked meat is Norman-French. Bites moves between Afghanistan and Texas by way of Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray. In Afghanistan there is gnawing hunger and the puritanical terrorism of the Taliban. Impoverished peasants are reduced to eating dog biscuits and Hakim's wife (Yvonne Gidden) ironically conjures up star soup from the dust. In conditions of endemic warlordism and pending imperialist invasion merely to get fresh, safe water is to risk one's life. Snipers and roadblocks are everywhere. Meanwhile the Taliban ban women from publicly consuming ice cream. Enjoyment is sinful. Yet a tub of vanilla is also something to kill for. What a wonderful moment it is when three sisters (Ishia Bennison, Yvonne Giddens and Karina Fernandez) raise their burqas, open the door of an abandoned fridge and in its glowing yellow light saviour little spoonfuls of its forbidden contents. Part innocent joy, part doomed transgression. Hog roast in Texas is almost venerated. But, though blessed by a disembodied Baptist church, the American way rests on the ruthless exploitation of migrant workers. As shown in the treatment meted out to Mexican diner waitress Angelica (Karina Fernandez), they are abused and treated with brutal contempt. Yet America, like Afghanistan, can descend into social chaos and barbarism. In a poetic glimpse of a post-apocalyptic future the diner's multi-ethnic staff resort to murder and cannibalism. They butcher their oppressor. This act of social revenge is anticipated, or prefigured, by the Guantanamo scene. A nervous Texan guard, Sammy junior (Yvonne Gidden), tries to interrogate Mo, a seemingly cocky British terrorist suspect (Karina Fernandez). Though one lies chained and manacled and the other has the power, humorous memories of school chemistry lessons meld into dark threats of mass destruction. Lisa Goldman has chosen her cast carefully and ensures that the danger of slipping into sentimentality is always avoided. Sudden change of pace and emotional tone serve the script well. Performances are rich and textured. Obviously in any ensemble it is invidious to pick out any one individual. Nevertheless, I did think Chris Jarman was particularly outstanding. His US god/cop/general boomed loud, was arrogantly blustering and, even when exuding bonhomie, carried that edge of menace. He needs to use his excellent performance to grab and directly engage with the audience. Bites has been criticised by some liberal reviewers for not sticking close to hard facts. Frankly, such sad narrow-mindedness spectacularly misses the point. This is a political work, but it is also a work of the imagination. Think Bertolt Brecht and The resistible rise of Arturo Ui - Hitler never traded cabbages nor did he organise Chicago's grocers. However, is there a more penetrating exposure of the posturing demagoguery of Hitler and what drove big business to put the Nazi gangsters into power? Brecht did not stick close to hard facts. Instead he used analogy, mockery and his considerable artistic talents. Facts do not speak for themselves, and drama - authentic drama, that is - reaches deep into the human condition in a way that is impossible for tarted-up journalism. Leave that to David Hare, Victoria Brittain and the Royal National Theatre. Bites is, thank goodness, not another one of those tiresome docudramas so admired by the timid middle classes and the unthinking left. Bites has already sold out for much of its run. Get a ticket while you can. Jack Conrad