WHAT a well-oiled engine the Old Red Lion theatre possesses.
Like its close Islington neighbours the King’s Head and the Hope – and the west London based Finborough Theatre – it defies the odds by producing some of the best fringe theatre going. On occasion, among the best theatre that London has to offer.
A recent feather in the Old Red Lion’s cap was Mrs Orwell which played to sell-out audiences. It has now been followed by Talk Radio which looks like it will enjoy similar success on the back of a breath-taking performance from Matthew Jure as the non-stop talking radio host Barry Champlain (look out for our review on this play shortly).
Mrs Orwell was so well received that it has now transferred to the Southwark Playhouse where it plays until September 23. I cannot recommend the play highly enough, especially given the fact that the transfer is a pure one. There has been no change in the cast.
Mrs Orwell, written by Tony Cox, details the last weeks of George Orwell’s life as he battles with tuberculosis in a private room at University College Hospital, London.
Orwell (Peter Hamilton Dyer) shuffles around like a man 30 years older than he is – he is still a tender 46 – and is prone to coughing fits. He is very much dependent upon a nurse (a Hattie Jacques like Rose Ede) to keep him clean and as well fed as possible despite the fact it is 1949 and rationing is still in force.
Although stricken with tuberculosis, Orwell cannot resist his roll-up cigarettes or his whisky. He is also prone to the occasional socialist rant, pines for his home in Jura and is pernickety about how his tea is made (tea first, milk second and no sugar – ‘one might just as well put in pepper or salt’).
He also desperately misses his five year old adopted son Richard who is being looked after by his sister Avril. ‘We’ve become the best of pals,’ he laments. Eileen, his wife and ‘a good old stick’, is dead, having succumbed to cancer.
Orwell cuts a miserable figure – he is known as Gloomy George – but there is one person in his life who is still able to ring his bell. Step forward Sonia Brownell, a well-connected and strikingly beautiful literary editor (Cressida Bonas) who is 16 years his junior. Orwell is besotted and is prepared to do anything to ensure she is part of his life.
His desperation is such that he is happy to make sacrifices to ensure he gets his woman – even if it means her having children with a younger man. He lures her with the promise of royalties from his books after his death – £15,000 a year – and says he does not believe in fidelity. She accepts.
Thrown into the mix is Lucian Freud, a bombastic, debt ridden and lewd young Bohemian who bowls into the room and draws his friend Orwell. But Freud, majestically played by Edmund Digby Jones, cannot keep carnal desire in his pants and is drawn to the intoxicating Sonia like a magnet.
‘Oh yes, I’m an absolute shit,’ he declares to Orwell. Never a truer word said. Shortly after the marriage, he seduces her in Orwell’s room while the author is having an x-ray.
To complete the set, there is Orwell’s agent Fred Warburg (Robert Stocks) who is determined despite the author’s illness that Orwell – and himself – cashes in on the recent success of 1984. But he meets with great resistance – from both Orwell and Sonia.
Orwell will not bend when it comes to any of his work being compromised even if it is just a request for appendices to be removed. ‘One simply cannot remove chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing,’ he tells Warburg.
It all makes for fascinating viewing, giving an insight into the complex world of Orwell. One moment, railing against the number of Rolls Royces when the country is being run by a Labour Government. The next, revealing that he changed his name from Eric Blair to George Orwell so that his books would be at eye level when people came into a bookshop to make a purchase.
It is a quality cast with Hamilton Dyer leading from the front, expertly portraying Orwell as a rather sad and frail individual who despite his socialism is not without his snobbish traits.
Cressida Bonas, a former girlfriend of Prince Harry, paints Sonia as someone who is as calculating as she is beautiful. Both Rose Ede and Robert Stocks are also excellent but the star turn is Edmund Digby Jones. His Freud is a potpourri of youthful arrogance and sexual desire.
Mrs Orwell is worth a visit. It shines a light on the last painful weeks of a great author. And to think he was only 46. Only the good die young.
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Cressida Bonas: Sonia Brownell
Peter Hamilton Dyer: George Orwell
Edmund Digby Jones: Lucian Freud
Robert Stocks: Fred Warburg
Rosie Ede: Nurse
Jimmy Walters: Director
Click here for Southwark Playhouse