Proud Haddock’s latest production brings Tony Cox’s new play to the Old Red Lion for a limited engagement. George Orwell’s name has been bandied about in recent years, thanks to his book Nineteen Eighty-Four and the politically influenced interest in dystopian life, but his private life has thus far been of less interest.
The play sees Orwell facing death, stuck in a London hospital with TB, but under contract to write more novels. Sensing a chance for happiness with his friend Sonia Brownell (16 years his junior), he proposes a platonic marriage – despite her initial discomfort, she accepts. Her on-off relationship with a married Frenchman isn’t working out, and the temptation of wealth and status that George openly offers proves too great to resist. As his health improves, the doctors recommend he recuperates in a sanatorium; will Sonia accompany him? And what will happen to his literary career?
For the Spanish Civil War soldier and author of Animal Farm, this real life last-ditch attempt at love is perhaps unexpected – nevertheless, Cox’s play seems to be a fairly accurate retelling of the events in the winter of Orwell’s life. In some ways it paints Sonia in quite a sympathetic light, and also suggests that Orwell was happy for her to acquire his wealth and continue living her own life. Despite that, she’s still quite unlikeable for the most part, with her apparent indifference towards children (Orwell had a young son) and her businesslike approach to everything in their time together.
Rebecca Brower’s set is a high quality reproduction of a 1940s hospital room, with the added depth of a short corridor running outside it that’s visible through the windows. Simon Gethin Thomas’ lighting design also comes into play here, with subtle highlighting and the powerful final image of a spotlit copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four on Orwell’s bed.
Of the supporting cast, Edmund Digby Jones’ turn as Lucian Freud stands out, skilfully capturing a sense of the enigmatic that Freud was famed for. The chemistry between his Freud and Cressida Bonas’ Sonia is immediately apparent (Brownell and Freud did have an affair in reality, though later on). Bonas herself seems to understand the ‘stiff upper lip’ nature of that time, and is also impressive when Sonia finally starts to show her emotions.
Though it is Mr Orwell who is the highlight, played with a fine balance of dark humour and a lonely desperation by Peter Hamilton Dyer. He truly shows the contradiction of Orwell’s physical frailty with his continued mental agility, including great one-liners (such as his interesting description of Prime Minister, Clement Attlee).
My verdict? An unexpected insight into one of the most famous authors of the 20th century, and beautifully designed – perhaps just a little lacking in drive and tension.
Mrs Orwell runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 26 August 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.