Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review Mrs Orwell

Mrs Orwell
by Tony Cox

Gentlemen's Relish

Post-Second World War. In the Soviet Union citizens were used to everything being in short supply and whispered about the corruption of those in authority who got more than their fair share plus access to foreign goods.

In Britain, paper rationing had just ended in 1949 but other rationing continued. The writer known as George Orwell had become the author of a bestseller Animal Farm, having eventually hit a post war Cold War zeitgeist, and then 1984, a sensation in the western publishing world.

The bio-drama Mrs Orwell begins with the male writer and essayist rather than the eponymous second wife, Sonia Brownell.

She is a 31 year old, glamorous blonde, as luminous and perky as a sunflower and the efficient literary magazine assistant editor to which Orwell was a contributor

Mrs Orwell, as the title and name implies (although George Orwell was a pseudonym), is for good or ill defined by George Orwell.

Orwell of course was a pseudonym (or  "mask" as one character remarks) for novels and especially essays which caught the imagination of a post-war generation - the persona of a plain speaking Englishman with socialist tendencies espousing values of decency.

This play by Tony Cox rather cleverly but far too subtly, in the opinion of TLT, seems to be a dream of Sonia as conjured up by George Orwell (né Eric Blair) and the male gaze.

Cox is light touch on Sonia who was the writer's second wife, marrying him in his hospital bed three months before his sudden death from a haemorrhage, who hasn't always had a good press.

It is also believed, the author partly based the character of Julia in his most famous novel 1984, although the play decides not to explicitly mention this.

Instead  Cressida Bonas has the difficult task on stage of embodying Sonia Brownell through the filter of Julia - becoming a creature of the famous writer's imagination addled by illness prescription drugs and eventually also a Scotch haze. 

In this Bonas, suitably svelte and cut-glass, does exceptionally well, as far as it goes, in spite of it being a tough ask.

But there is a vacuum at the centre of the play. In this, by coincidence, it rather resembles the fictional matriarch of Apologia where a reputation precedes a woman with hardly any supporting evidence..

Nevertheless in the case of the play Mrs Orwell and real-life perceptions of Sonia as a stereotype grasping and unstable widow in charge of the literary estate after her husband's death, this isn't necessarily wholly a criticism.

The personality of the excitable Orwell (or should we say Blair) is far more filled out  matched by a beguiling performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer who embodies the public schoolboy enthusiasm, including a taste for comfort food such as dumplings and Gentleman's Relish, which turns interestingly into something more hard-edged in the second act.

Rose Ede as the nurse has to cope with a stereotyped role but still manages to give a glimpse of underlying scepticism about the various visitors filing in to see the celebrity writer whose work Hollywood was by this time clamouring to put on screen.

She also shares a moment with the writer's new wife where the audience can glimpse the generous, practical side of Sonia's nature.

Publisher Fred Warburg is portrayed by playwright Cox and played by Robert Stocks as a stolid, methodical businessman balancing the interests of Orwell and keeping some secrets for Sonia yet excluding her from the male club.

This part of the play doesn't always add up  (and is somewhat at variance with the real Westminster School, Oxford-educated, First World War army officer publisher) but may again be explained by the prism of Orwell's imagination. Even so, he is given a clunky expositional speech in the second act which rather breaks up the fluidity of the production.

Edmund Digby Jones gives a charismatic if creepy performance as artist Lucian Freud. Yet he's introduced to us first with Orwell which again rather skews the audience's view of Sonia's close relationship with him. We never get to know that she had known Freud from her days as an artist's model.

So Sonia remains an enigma with her radiant photogenic film star good looks. No mention is made of her shared heritage with Eric Blair, both born in colonial India before returning to England. Or her schooldays with future film star Vivian Leigh, although it may explain an otherwise cryptic desire specifically referenced at the end of the play.

Mrs Orwell is neatly directed by Jimmy Walters keeping up the momentum with Jeremy Walmsley's music bridging the scenes. There's a deceptively simple and effective hospital room design by  Rebecca Brower. Nevertheless the corridor windows also transform themselves almost into cinema screens for some of the action.

However there are a few elements which marr the theatrical experience, chiefly the assumption that an audience new to the story will be able to pick up on the name dropping. By the same token, it may be  a play that has been thinned down and some necessary information left out.

Whatever, lack of background sometimes leaves holes in an otherwise skilful  patchwork and out-of-context jusxtapositions do undermine a more complex dramatic and humanly credible analysis.

It needs a little more like the piquant moment when Sonia is dragged by her husband, his publisher and Lucian Freud, who sees the opportunity for a loan, into a business arrangement and when we realise just how vulnerable and how potentially dangerous the situation is for her. An amber/green light.

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