Bridging a gap of 80 years between author
George Orwell’s early life in Paris and a social experiment by Guardian
journalist Polly Tonybee in London,
This is storytelling that sings, proving you don’t need a National Theatre-sized budget to deliver great work, you just need bucket-loads of talent.
For Orwell this was an escape from his privileged life in England to seek his muse. Taking up residence in a slum hotel he quickly burns through his money; is swindled by con men preying on the poor; sells his possessions and ends up in a sweatbox kitchen working impossible hours for minimal reward. Fast forward to the turn of the century and in the name of book research Tonybee has left her middle class life (“just 15 minutes away”) and is moving into an unfurnished council flat in a sink estate. She has to deal with the seemingly arbitrary and dehumanising process of claiming benefits; the unfair and immoral advantage a certain retailer uses to exploit those that need to spread payments; how temp agencies get her to sign away her rights in order to work and ultimately the poverty trap that becomes inescapable.
David Byrne’s writing and direction is exquisite. The fluidity is mesmerising. Both Orwell and Tonybee’s stories are cleverly entwined; actors rolling from beneath a bed; appearing from behind a moving door or spinning from a prop – jumping the eight decade gap without missing a beat. This cunning device allows, for instance, the exploitive pawn shop owner in the 1920s to turn on his heels to become the exploitive Brighthouse assistant selling overpriced beds in the 2000s.
Byrne’s superb direction is perfectly matched by Catherine Webb’s flawless lighting design and Ronnie Dorsey’s unerring costumes. This is storytelling that sings, proving you don’t need a National Theatre-sized budget to deliver great work, you just need bucket-loads of talent.
If there can be leads in this largely ensemble piece, then Richard Delaney and Karen Ascoe can claim those plaudits. Delaney as Orwell delivers with rare confidence and clarity that it's difficult to take your gaze away. Ascoe flips between the diametrically opposite characters of Tonybee and fleapit hotel owner Madame F – I had to check my programme just to be sure this was the same actor. But this is not to take away from the other members of the cast, such was their universal excellence.
Regardless of your political colour, there’s no doubt this is great theatre. Questions can be raised about the morality of the middle class experimenting with poverty for their own commercial gain, but in this case it certainly provides the meat for a very tasty sandwich.