Tonight’s outing to The Old Red Lion Theatre served as the perfect reminder as to why I frequent the Off West End theatres far more than their West End counterparts. And I’m not referring to the cost of the tickets – although it goes without saying that the ‘Offies’ are far cheaper. No, it’s the fact that they continually amaze me with their willingness to promote new writing and take chances on lesser-known actors – frequently, with aplomb.
‘Mrs Orwell’ is another shining example of the above. This brand new play, directed by Jimmy Waters, tells the story of the last few weeks of George Orwell’s life, as he lies in hospital seriously ill with tuberculosis, desperate not to spend the final portion of his life alone. Certain that he has at least three more books in him, if he is cared for properly, he sets about finding a wife.
Orwell, played by the excellent Peter Hamilton Dyer, is only 46 years old. Until tonight, I had no idea that just a few months before his death he married a woman nearly 20 years younger than him: assistant magazine editor Sonia Brownell, commonly thought to be the inspiration behind Julia in ‘1984’. I’ve read most of Orwell’s books and admire him greatly, both as a writer and as a man of principle, but never paid much attention to his personal life.
It is his personal life, and his relationships, which are at the heart of ‘Mrs Orwell’, however. And I was impressed by how fairly it depicted all of its characters. Sonia – young, beautiful and the object of many men’s affections – could easily come across as shallow or fortune-hunting – but instead Cressida Bonas imbues her with a quiet dignity and there are a number of scenes throughout the play which remind us just how difficult life was for that generation of women. With many of their male contemporaries lost to World War II, and career opportunities limited, to say the least, safety and security must have felt like a distant dream. Thanks to Bonas’s performance, you cannot help but sympathise with Sonia, as she weighs up the sparse options available to her.
Youth versus middle age is hardly a new theme, of course, but here it is lent humour and something of a frisson as Sonia encourages, swerves, then encourages again the affections of a young Lucian Freud (Edmund Digby-Jones, also excellent), hired to sketch her future husband’s portrait. The sparks that fly between them contrast nicely with grey, 1950s Britain, weary from endless rationing and a perpetual lack of money.
A special mention must go to the remaining actors, Rosie Ede and Robert Stocks, who have smaller roles but are perfect in them. Peter Hamilton Dyer’s is the stand-out performance, but this is a true ensemble piece.
Although Orwell died at a depressingly young age there was, of sorts, a happy ending. He and Sonia were, by all accounts, blissfully content, with Orwell’s friends commenting upon how happy she made him. After his death, Sonia continued to guard Orwell’s literary legacy fiercely, to the extent that she died virtually penniless but adored, by her godchildren and her many friends – having created a legacy of her very own.