Mrs Orwell, Old Red Lion Theatre – Review


Peter Hamilton Dyer, Rosie Ede and Robert Stocks in Mrs Orwell, credit Samuel Taylor.
Orwell being paid a visit by his literary agent / All photos © Samuel Taylor

Plays about real people make for interesting stories and those about literary figures are doubly so. For those who write about truth and the human experience, the contrast of these ideals with their own lives makes for an interesting tension: beliefs in the social sphere versus the personal. For a man who coined ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘Newspeak’, George Orwell was only too aware of this dichotomy and separation – even before the adoption of his non de plume instead of Eric Blair…

Peter Hamilton Dyer in Mrs Orwell, credit Samuel Taylor.
Orwell (Peter Hamilton Dyer)

Written by Tony Cox and directed by Jimmy Walters, Mrs Orwell charts Orwell’s life in 1949-50 – at the peak of his commercial success, but also the nadir of his health. Suffering from tuberculosis, Orwell (Peter Hamilton Dyer­­­­) is bedbound in University College Hospital. Asides from a nurse (Rosie Ede) for company, Orwell receives three regular visitors: his literary agent Fred Warburg (Robert Stocks), up-and-coming artist Lucien Freud (Edmund Digby Jones) and assistant editor on Horizon literary magazine Sonia Brownell (Cressida Bonas). As someone whose wife has recently died and has a young adopted son to care for, Orwell’s on the lookout for the ‘next Mrs Orwell’. Feeling he had at least another three books ‘within him’, Brownell seemed an ideal candidate to help ‘nurse their existence’ through this period.

Hamilton Dyer’s Orwell is erudite and opinionated, but in some ways his physical constitution mirrors that of his most famous creation, Winston Smith. Constantly short-of-breath, he often speaks quickly as he doesn’t know when his next violent coughing fit will take place. One senses that one of these attacks will be the death of him…

If Orwell shares some of his questioning, individualistic characteristics with Winston, there are clues that Brownell is the inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Julia. Both women work with ‘fiction’, both women have facets to their personality that are pragamatic as well as passionate. But while Orwell only observes the latter indirectly, we the audience see first-hand proof of its existence and like Lucien Freud, question Brownell for even considering Orwell’s marriage proposal.

Rosie Ede and Cressida Bonas in Mrs Orwell, credit Samuel Taylor.
L-R: Rosie Ede, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Cressida Bonas

The world of ‘celebrities’ in the postwar period was ‘smaller’ than it is now and through Freud and Orwell, we have a glimpse of who in the literary and visual arts they knew and gossiped about – particularly Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. The play also does a good job of conveying postwar Britain, what with the details about rationing and the encouragement to eat fish (snook) from the Commonwealth. With regards to Orwell himself, the one ‘vice’ he has in this time of austerity is tea from Fortnum & Mason!

Sonia Brownell (Cressida Bonas)

For the most part, the play shows Orwell’s disinterest in his appearance, resigned to the fact he isn’t naturally handsome or a ladies’ man. However, it isn’t this that irks Brownell so much, or the 16-year age gap, but his eccentricities such as deliberately pouring tea onto his saucer and drinking it from there – a quirk he picked up years before when researching The Road To Wigan Pier. Then there is the matter of location. For someone who’s spent a large amount of his time writing about society, Orwell’s idea of heaven is stay at the Hebredian island of Jura, miles away from civilisation. Brownell, however, still very much wants to stay in London amongst people and not be cut off from the wider world.

Apart from these differences and obstacles, what does the play really have to say about Brownell’s and Orwell’s relationship? Certainly out of ‘necessity’ it was of a celibate nature, though Orwell does hint at this stage of his life that ‘fidelity’ to his work was more important than a physical affair. History does attest to Brownell being protective of Orwell’s legacy and for the most part adhering to his wishes. However, even by the end of the play, it throws into question who really has Orwell’s best interests at heart – who in the past showed foresight and faith, and who would continue to do so in the future…

© Michael Davis 2017

Mrs Orwell runs at Old Red Lion Theatre until 26th August 2017.

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