Leave it to a London cabbie —- even onstage — to have the last word, in this case a broadside spoken down the telephone about the pitfalls of family that Mick Mahoney’s Royal Court play “Food Chain” has by that point made abundantly plain. Compared to the shenanigans going on in and around the Islington flat belonging to the entrepreneurial taxi driver Tony (Paul Ritter) and his tough-talking, dysfunctional brood, even London’s meanest streets must come as some sort of respite to a man who insists on normalcy but lives surrounded by ambitious ne’er-do-wells and, as the Brits like to put it, flat-out nutters.
Not, one hastens to add, that “Food Chain” has its eye on the sorts of torments suffered by, say, Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrones. As much a satire of a particularly English nouveau riche acquisitiveness — Mike Leigh quickly comes to mind — as it is a “Sopranos”-quoting shoutfest, Mahoney’s play is eccentric and quirky and, in its modest way, perfectly likable. And although it has nothing in common with the erstwhile American play of the same name, one imagines New York dramatist Nicky Silver, author of the Off Broadway “Food Chain,” might well recognize Mahoney’s misanthropic relish as the sort of dramatic strategy capable of paying dividends either side of the pond.
There’s little, to be sure, immediately redemptive about either the ceaselessly insensitive Paul (on the job, he boasts of ferrying “spastics to the seaside”) or his foul-mouthed wife, Carol (popular British TV name Linda Robson), a coke-snorting termagant who isn’t above castigating her own teenage son as a “flash little fucker.” And so 16-year-old Jamie (Sid Mitchell, terrific) is immediately seen to be — a streetwise tearaway with his eye on a budding acting career whereby he can bring a dose of “real” British yoof’ (that’s underclass Britspeak for “youth”) to the screen.
In a play containing references to London’s famed Anna Scher stage school, perhaps it’s appropriate that “Food Chain” should contain its own equivalent Godot in the much-discussed award-winning TV commercials director, Paul, who would raise Jamie’s work prospects were he ever to show up. Instead, Jamie gets “excluded” from school for one too many pranks and ensnared with some local drug dealers in an incident that threatens to do in what scant thespian hopes he may have. With Jamie in the hands of the police (and a second teen child off charting her own embryonic showbiz career), Tony turns his attentions to Emma (Claire Rushbrook, late of Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies”), mother of the bedwetting 14-year-old Billy (Calum Callaghan) and onetime girlfriend to ex-druggie Nat (Justin Salinger), whose surprise arrival shifts the play’s tone dangerously toward the very earnestness it elsewhere mocks.
The play’s details don’t always add up, not least because of a reliance on revelations of character (one from Nat, a far less convincing one from Emma) that suggest the playwright cranking up the gears rather than going after behavior that’s truly germane. Mahoney is better at the broader outlines of character — the property mini-mogul Paul rings entiely true in the London of today — than he is when indulging some awfully studied ironies (people speak of being “happy” at the precise moments they are anything but), alongside a tendency toward glibness that taxes the actors’ abilities to ground the action in lives as they might actually be lived.
But perhaps that kind of “reality” isn’t the point of a play unfolding on a faceless set by designer Ti Green dominated by a large-screen TV, as befits an appliance-happy household that, we’re told, contains five TVs. (In which case, “The Osbournes” is clearly playing somewhere.) Could “Food Chain” spawn its own TV sitcom? I could imagine far worse small-screen antiheroes than Ritter’s raucously funny Paul, the sort of gadget-minded obsessive who seems to care rather more for Sony PlayStations than for a wayward family’s sobering truths. The title gets repeated several times in the course of a play that has its serious-sided points to make but is at its bilious best when its characters are most wretched.