Old Red Lion Theatre, London – until 26 August 2017
Tony Cox’s bittersweet play manages to hit the heart over and over again thanks to two strong performances from Cressida Bonas and Peter Hamilton Dyer.
Should you sacrifice your own happiness to satisfy someone’s dying wish? It is a question that sticks in the audience’s mind in Jimmy Walters‘ Proud Haddock production of Tony Cox’s fascinating and at times intense new play Mrs Orwell.
Taking place across the final months of George Orwell’s life, the play explores how Sonia Brownell attempts to help Orwell (who believes that he still has three novels in him despite the seriousness of his condition) by marrying him and sacrificing her own happiness. But as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that perhaps she has her own reasons to want to marry Orwell.
The enclosed space of the Old Red Lion Theatre really helps to keep the intimacy of the production consistent as well as keeping the audience feeling as though they are at the centre of what is happening in front of them. This means that watching Mrs Orwell feels like a completely raw and emotional experience from beginning to end.
But equally, thanks to a strong and vivid performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer as George Orwell, the audience gets a strong insight into the man behind some of the best-known novels in English literature. Dyer’s performance showcases a man who despite his illness is as sharp as ever but also increasingly vulnerable and wondering what he has achieved with his life outside his work. In particular, his guilt at not helping his first wife through her illness as much as he could have is painful to watch as is his desperation and hope that Sonia is the person to help him redeem his past mistakes. It is a memorable performance.
Meanwhile, Cressida Bonas also delivers a strong and conflicting performance as Sonia – a character who becomes increasingly torn between her desire to help and her desire for freedom and to pursue her love interest, Maurice. The way in which she switches between resentment and frustration at what Orwell expects from her to her devotion to his every need is deeply engaging to watch.
While their characters have been well developed, it seems a shame that Edmund Digby Jones as Lucian Freud and Robert Stocks as Fred Warburg aren’t given as much stage time to give their characters as much purpose.
The play flows with ease, style and with flashes of humour, with Jimmy Walters really making the most of every poignant speech and every raw confrontation. But it still feels as though the relationships between the characters could have been developed further, as conversations feel a bit isolated at times – particularly with time seemingly passing almost too quickly.
Overall, it is a deeply fascinating and engaging production with two mesmerising performances from Cressida Bonas and Peter Hamilton Dyer at its centre that make this a highly recommended watch.
Mrs Orwell continues to play at the Old Red Lion Theatre until the 26th August. For more information visit: http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/mrs-orwell.html.