Southwark Playhouse, London – until 23 September 2017
“So what you want, in a nutshell, George, is a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for Richard?”
Tony Cox‘s play Mrs Orwell did sufficiently good business in its run at the Old Red Lion last month that it has quickly transferred south of the river, to the Southwark Playhouse for an additional few weeks. Based on actual events but with a fair measure of artistic license thrown in, as with all the best stories, it sheds light on the final weeks of George Orwell‘s life, as tuberculosis ravaged his lungs.
Coming from near Wigan as I do, I had heard of Orwell long before I really knew who he was, as much for the pub named after him as his famous book. So Cox provides an interesting biographical slant on the writer, looking at him through the eyes of assistant magazine editor Sonia Brownell, who became a constant visitor to his University College hospital bed and eventually received the most platonic of proposals.
The fascinating set-up delves into such notions of how literary fame is actually achieved (through agents’ tenacity as much as writers’ talents, it is argued here), and the creative synergy that stems from artists milling around each other like the salons of yore. But it suffers a little from from keeping its titular character so enigmatic – what truly drives Sonia to make such a momentous decision is left frustratingly vague.
Cressida Bonas cleverly plays up these ambiguities but isn’t always helped by the writing which doesn’t allow her much depth but Peter Hamilton-Dyer’s Orwell is marvellously spiky as a man struggling to deal with the lack of control he can wield over his life. Edmund Digby Jones’ glowering Lucian Freud and Rosie Ede’s efficient nurse offer consistent and contrasting support, and Robert Stocks does manfully as Orwell’s publisher, saddled with a whole load of expositionary passages.
Jimmy Walters’ direction betrays its origins a little in its static nature but evokes a strong sense of the clipped emotion of the time, Rebecca Brower’s detailed set neatly offering corridorred space for the conversations that need to happen outwith the room. And the gentle nature of Jeremy Warmsley’s score reflects the contemplative mood of this interesting slice of literary history.