Down & Out in Paris and London is the New Diorama’s most recent production, written as a combination of George Orwell’s memoir of the same name, and journalist Polly Toynbee’s book Hard Work. The parallels between the 1920s & 2000s are remarkable, and it is a particularly eye-opening piece for the age of austerity in which we currently live.
Written & directed by David Byrne (the New Diorama’s artistic director), Down & Out is seen through the eyes of Orwell living in a hotel in Paris, and Toynbee in a council flat in London. Both middle class, looking for a story, immersing themselves in unfamiliar worlds knowing that they have financial security to fall back on. In Orwell’s side of the story we meet a wealth of eccentric characters, and see Orwell’s own personal dilemmas – whereas Toynbee’s sections focus more on the modern system and its effect on her as a job seeker. The interchanges are remarkably slick, and Polly carrying a copy of Orwell’s book on her provides a tangible link between the two ages.
It is incredible how effectively the fairly small space is utilised. The few props are used alternately for both worlds, moved efficiently around by the cast. What could be quite distracting, in this production works perfectly for the entire feel of the piece – reflecting the tone of the scenes in which the set changes are deployed. All of the transitions are impressively quick (even making use of the different levels of a single bed to maximise speed & use of space), in particular some late scenes in which Orwell works in a kitchen & Toynbee in a hospital. The frantic pace is natural, and somehow creates the illusion of there being more than just six actors in the cast.
All, bar one, of the company cover more than one role, requiring speedy costume changes & a good grasp on the various accents of the characters they are portraying. They all work incredibly well, although perhaps Stella Taylor would benefit from a headscarf in her scenes as the Russian mother – just to try & make her look a little older, as it’s a bit too much of a suspension of disbelief with Andrew Strafford-Baker as her grown up son.
Karen Ascoe is brilliantly funny as Madame F (the proprietor of the hotel in which Orwell stays) and touchingly sincere as Polly. She portrays Toynbee’s disbelief in the injustice of the system with great earnest, but without ever sounding too much like she’s taking the moral high ground.
Richard Delaney takes the central role of George Orwell (or, as he refers to himself throughout, Eric Blair – his real name). It is, quite simply, one of the finest performances I’ve witnessed this year. The story is a serious one, of course, but not without its lighter moments; Delaney is a master of both. He acts as narrator & participant in his story, proving just as strong as both. He animates Orwell’s internal struggle, letting the audience into his thoughts – and keeping them in the palm of his hand.
My verdict? Relevant, educational & thought-provoking theatre at its absolute best – a slick production with strong performances all round.
Down & Out in Paris and London runs at the New Diorama Theatre until 14 May 2016, before moving to Greenwich Theatre from 17-21 May 2016. Tickets are available for the Greenwich run online and from the box office.