One of the ongoing joys of being part of last year’s Dream2016 players is keeping up with the subsequent appearances of the various professionals from the show. Thus only the other day while channel hopping I came across Ayesha (Titania) as part of the regular Holby City team. I know from reading recent reviews that Chu (Oberon) is still with the RSC playing the Duke of Marlborough in Queen Anne and Jack (Lysander) has found himself in one of the hits of the moment Ink which is scheduled to transfer to the West End in the autumn. It’s also been fun going to see some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met in action. Thus I’ve enjoyed Alex (our Bottom understudy) in Made In Dagenham, Mari (Peaseblossom) in a touring production of Pride and Prejudice and Lucy (Puck) twice in her solo outing in Grounded and as part of the company in Arturo Ui at the Donmar.
Most recently, though, I attended a performance of a new play Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion fringe theatre, Islington where I was delighted to see Peter Hamilton Dyer (our Egeus) in the lead role of the celebrated author. Here’s my thoughts on this production.
It is late 1949 and renowned author George Orwell is lying in his own personal Room 101; for him “the worst thing in the world” is that he may not be able to continue to write. For he is in a hospital bed suffering from recurrent tuberculosis which has left him weak and forbidden to work even though he feels he has at least three more novels in him. Salvation, of sorts, arrives in the form of Sonia Brownell, an assistant magazine editor sixteen years his junior, to whom Orwell proposes a platonic marriage. Despite finding a degree of happiness Orwell survives only another three months leaving Sonia a widow and the fearsome protector of his literary estate.
The beating heart of Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell is the relationship between Orwell and Sonia. What were the latter’s motives – genuine affection, mercenary money grabbing, pity? What did Orwell really hope to get out of it (“a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for Richard”?) We are never really told and this makes the piece all that more intriguing. Proud Haddock’s production of this new play at The Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington proves to be a strong one with two excellent central performances.
Despite being called Mrs Orwell the play’s key figure is undoubtedly the writer himself. As played by uncanny look alike Peter Hamilton Dyer, Orwell starts as an irascible curmudgeon with very fixed views on, among other things, how to make the perfect cup of tea; he is also fiercely defensive of his literary work. Hamilton Dyer’s performance is captivating and rewarding making us care for this deeply principled yet inflexible man who sees a last chance for inner peace. As Orwell’s health briefly improves at the start of Act 2, so Hamilton Dyer’s performance grows in stature as the writer plans a return to his beloved Isle of Jura and reflects on his past experiences in the Burma police and the Spanish Civil War. Cressida Bonas gives an assured performance as Sonia. She is both enigmatic and haughty and conveys a clear sense of inner turmoil as she struggles to do the right thing by herself and her dying friend.
A suitably and believably louche performance by Edmund Digby Jones as artist Lucian Freud adds a note of conflict to proceedings and a solid turn by Robert Stocks as publisher Fred Warburg helps to place the Orwells’ dilemmas in a wider context… though the potted history of Orwell’s career by the latter seems to come far too late in proceedings to make much difference and might have been better confined to the programme.
Director Jimmy Walters keeps a tight hand on proceedings and ensures that the action flows seamlessly across the play’s episodic structure. The set, by designer Rebecca Brower, is little short of a miracle given the amount of space at the production’s disposal. It even includes a soulless corridor (reminiscent of one of the Ministries in 1984) where much of the secretive conversations between Orwell’s visitors take place. I’m not sure if miking these scenes is an absolute necessity but I have to say I found this somewhat distracting for what were supposed to be whispered exchanges.
However, this is a minor gripe and in the end it did not detract from the overall strong nature of the production. The play gives a fascinating glimpse into the last days of a great author and I hope it will continue to have a life beyond the fringe. It would make an excellent TV drama on BBC 4 but wherever it ends up it should certainly take Hamilton Dyer and Bonas with it. To quote Orwell himself the production is definitely plusgood.*
So that’s my latest foray into the world of the ex-Dreamers. And what’s on the horizon? Well our wonderful assistant director Kim Sykes is tackling Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage at Stratford upon Avon and our very own Ben Goffe (Mustardseed) is in the cast. Chris Nayak (Demetrius) is just about to appear in the cast of King Lear at the Globe. And for those of you not in town Tarek Merchant, our talented MD and mastermind of so many Dream warm up sessions, is in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Sam Redford (Theseus) is set to appear in the second series of hit TV drama Dr. Foster. I’m sure there’s plenty of the others up to stuff so please forgive me if I’ve not mentioned them – without becoming a full time stalker it’s hard to keep up with such a talented bunch.