Writer: Tony Cox
Director: Jimmy Walters
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In our modern world that still believes in true love, how difficult it is to imagine that people marry for any other reason? But of course they do; some choose marriage for companionship, to fulfil social expectations and some more mercenary reasons. How much more complicated when the hand on offer belongs to a major literary star, someone older, unwell, who you are incapable of loving romantically but who offers a comfortable living, money and status?
It was a choice Sonia Brownell made when she married George Orwell in 1949, inspiring Tony Cox’s new play Mrs Orwell playing at The Old Red Lion Theatre. Recuperating in hospital from a bout of tuberculosis, the irascible George Orwell is convinced that his prim and competent friend Sonia, with whom he is in love, would make a perfect wife to manage his recovery. But soon, with Orwell’s health improving, it becomes clear that his independent new wife has little interest in playing nurse and they both have different expectations of wedded bliss.
Tony Cox’s play is a fascinating insight into the latter months of Orwell’s life exploring the consequences of fulfilling someone’s dying wish. There is much to admire in Cox’s sensitive and multi-layered text that shows its characters suffering from long-repressed emotion. In this, there are comparisons to be made with Terence Rattigan both in the way in which Cox’s characters make the wrong choice for the right reasons, and the pain it causes them, accepted with a very British understatement and resignation.
There is an almost cinematic quality to the flow of action supported by Rebecca Brower’s incredible slightly-worn 1940s hospital room set with adjoining corridor for secret conversations that utterly transforms the tiny pub theatre, and is surely one of the most impressive sets seen at The Old Red Lion. It’s like watching one of those charming 1940s period dramas that British filmmakers do so well, instantly recognisable and full of domestic sacrifice, as if the whole thing could be transposed on screen unaltered.
The play is called Mrs Orwell but like all biographers Cox cannot help being drawn primarily to Orwell himself and has created a richly layered role that Peter Hamilton Dyer fills completely. This wheezy Orwell is grouchy, bad tempered and at odds with a world he no longer understands, but pines for his simple rural idyll in northern Scotland with a wife at his side. In one of the most captivating moments, Hamilton Dyer’s Orwell describes the texture of his life in Burma with vivid affection that withers as he talks about the suffocating effects of Empire and the society folk that made him hate the world. It’s a speech full of ache and sadness that cuts to the heart of Orwell’s character and it’s impossible to imagine Orwell could be performed more perfectly than by Hamilton Dyer.
Sonia Brownell’s Sonia Orwell is a very different creature to her husband, a cool and controlled woman of 30, whose brisk efficiency and bossiness dominates Cressida Bonas’ interpretation. She efficiently decides to marry Orwell but the audience is never quite sure how pecuniary her motives are, and whether she genuinely cares for him. Bonas has captured Sonia’s haughtiness and exasperation, particularly as she becomes established in the marriage, acting more like a parent than a wife, but Bonas underlies this with a desire for power and an enjoyment of the status being Mrs Orwell will give her for years to come.
There are underdeveloped roles for Edmund Digby Jones as bohemian cage-rattler Lucian Freud whose main purpose is to muddy the motivations of Orwell and Sonia, as well as a suspicious nurse played by Rosie Ede who resents Sonia but isn’t given more time to explore why. Robert Stocks as publisher Fred Warburg delivers some useful Orwell publishing figures and a potted history, but his final rant sits awkwardly against the subtler approach of the rest of the play.
Mrs Orwell is a packed with lovely period touches and references to the artistic crowd of the day, whether it be lunch with Thomas Mann or drinks with Picasso, Dali and Princess Margaret, which help to create atmosphere and a sense of life beyond the walls of Orwell’s hospital room. Ultimately it is a play about a clash of worlds, of a humble man thrust into a society he despises, but loving a woman who cannot imagine life without her London freedoms. Cox’s play swells with emotion, pity and pathos that shows whether you marry for love or something else it’s still a very hard road.
Runs until 26 August 2017 | Image: Samuel Taylor