The cast of 1984
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan’s hugely successful adaptation of George Orwell’s most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has returned to London’s West End for another limited season. Running at 101 minutes straight through, it is brimming with tension and a theatrical assault on the senses.

Winston Smith has noticed there’s something not quiet right about the world in which he lives; every day feels the same, but everyone else is either ignorant or ignoring it. In a state controlled by the mysterious & omnipresent Big Brother, it is impossible to live an individual life and think your own thoughts. If you do anything out of the ordinary, or even consider it, you are at risk of being labelled a Thought Criminal and an enemy of the state. And everyone knows where that will lead…

Andrew Gower in 1984
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The story has been adapted in such a way that it works completely as a standalone piece of live-action theatre, whilst remaining entirely faithful to the book. It is the perfect marriage of every different aspect that goes into making a show.

Chloe Lamford’s set design enables two distinct parts of the story to be told with extreme efficacy. For the most part it is a wood-panelled room with some cupboards inside and a corridor running along the back. Evocative of a bygone time, it is used for multiple settings without a need for too much change. There is even a video screen hanging on the back wall to allow the use of projection – for example, for the Two Minutes Hate. But the real genius comes later on in the story, as it is efficiently altered to create a brand new setting.

Lighting (Natasha Chivers) and sound (Tom Gibbons) also play a key role in creating the world of 1984. The former, in particular, comes into its own once we reach the second half of the play – though the use of fleeting blackouts throughout is well-judged and allows for a sense of mystery to be created.

Catrin Stewart in 1984
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Of the supporting cast, Rudi Dharmalingam stands out as the antique shop owner, Charrington. Presented as an innocent old man – is he all as he seems?  Catrin Stewart is everything you would expect in Julia: seemingly repressed & submissive in public, then dropping that persona when she’s with Winston.

The central character, of course, is Winston Smith. Andrew Gower paints him as the terrified rebel with ease, brimming with nervous energy that spills over into determined fervour as Winston decides his course of action. The fear in his eyes as he faces Room 101 seems so genuine that you can’t help but remain gripped, and feel petrified on his behalf. This is a career defining performance from Gower.

Andrew Gower in 1984
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

My verdict? A traumatising & terrifying play – perpetually relevant and brought to dystopian life with top class performances all-round.

Rating: 5*

1984 runs at the Playhouse Theatre until 29 October 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.

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