Down and Out in Paris and London – New Diorama, London

Writer: and Director: David Byrne

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty


This whirling hour and a half shows intimately the grime, exhaustion and sisyphean harshness of a live in poverty. Inspired by George Orwell’s book, and mixing in Polly Toynbee’s 2003 book Hard Work, we are given a look at how poverty in 1920’s Paris, and the equivalent situation in early naughties London, is for those experiencing it every day.

Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name) ditches his comfortable English life for the experiences and inspiration the grot of the Parisian underbelly. After his savings are thieved from his lodging house, he falls deeper into poverty, existing on francs, then centimes, per day. Working for a short period as a washer in the Hotel X, he is able to report on the extreme exhaustion, frantic pace, pay and circular nature of this poverty stricken life.

Echoing it, some 80 years later, journalist Polly Toynbee lifts herself from comfort and moves a half mile away to a council flat, diving into a modern experience of poverty to better understand the world of those she writes about.

With multiple parallels drawn between the two worlds, a strong argument is made that regardless of place, time or reason this resourceless life is a grind, an emotionally and sometimes physically violent state that exists in the same space as one of comfort but is almost unrecognisable. Putting these two works together also draws out the differences. In Eric Blair’s world, he simply needs work to survive – picking up casual labour and not eating for days on end because he has such a meagre supply of work. In Toynbee’s, the majority of her struggles come from the poisoned chalice of the social welfare system an opaque maze of fickle and unrealistic support services that exists to help those who can’t find work.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and the points being made about the more recent, current, situation can be a little heavy-handed. They’re selected for dramatic impact, naturally, and there’s an argument to be made they overdo it when telling the full story of modern poverty. However, and that’s an incredibly important however, they are true nonetheless, and they should be jarring to anyone not already engaged with this world. The producers provide a list of further information and reading suggestions on the programme, which makes for very sobering stuff.

The cast and production switches freely between Paris and London, creating these parallels and cross-decade themes to build the thesis. Excellent performances from all, with Richard Delaney and Karen Ascoe as Eric and Polly very well chosen to be the audience’s portal into this world. They swirl through this uncaring, hall-of-mirrors world getting bounced around by false turns and false hope, presented against an excellent set of an anonymous city street.

Writer and director David Byrne has pulled together a thrilling work, exciting in a theatrical sense but also energising in its message. The sources and structures that exist around a life of poverty may have changed, but the end result is remarkably similar. A wonderfully executed example of campaigning, socially conscious theatre.

Runs until 31 May 2016 | Image: Contributed


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