The transfer of Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell from the Old Red Lion to the Southwark is intriguing. Charting the final few weeks of George Orwell’s life as he potters around his University College London hospital room in 1949, it is clear to see why the storyline appeals to most. Believing ardently that he has at least three more novels in him, George Orwell decides to wed again, to boost his morale through companionship and secure himself round-the- clock care. His choice, naturally, falls on his beautiful, gregarious 30-year-old friend Sonia Brownell, and after some deliberation, she agrees.
Brownell’s deliberation is minimal, which is hardly surprising given the whacking great fortune she stands to inherit when George finally succumbs to his tuberculosis. In many ways, this is what makes the play so intriguing – it is entertaining in its detail, and in the relationships between each character, but there is no real central conflict that the characters must grapple with. Sonia Brownell marries her friend George, but given his impotence and her lack of passion for him anyway, easily starts an affair with Lucian Freud (an incredibly slimy artist), whilst openly nursing a broken heart after being unceremoniously dumped by Maurice, who is never seen but oft-referred to. Perhaps if in Cox’s version these events weren’t so inevitable – if there were more struggle and anguish – it might have made for a more gripping play. As it is, Mrs Orwell is pleasant enough to watch, but I’m not sure it leaves any lasting impression.
That said, there is some fine acting in this production, not least from Peter Hamilton Dyer as George Orwell, who for all his coughing and spluttering has a certain strength and poise that is worthy of such a great writer as Orwell. His portrayal is perhaps the most moving; a famous writer, full of words and wit, yet utterly dependent on others for both his bedside care and happiness. Cressida Bonas is credible as Mrs Orwell, although I didn’t particularly care for her, perhaps because we are never let into her inner world either through the script or in performance, and Edmund Digby Jones is deliciously despicable as the mincing womaniser Lucian Freud. With a sparse set, the emptiness of Orwell’s life – loveless and bleak – is nicely matched by the distance between the characters in Jimmy Walters’ direction; the characters barely touch, and rarely seem to look at each other, which makes Orwell’s searching eyes all the more heartbreaking.
A solid production, Mrs Orwell does provide insight into what might have passed in the final chapter of Orwell’s life, but perhaps its greatest achievement is inspiring viewers, like me, to pick up his books once again in the hope of discovering more about the mind of this truly remarkable writer.
Review by Amy Stow
University College Hospital, London, 1949. George Orwell is in the last chapter of his life with a severe case of Tuberculosis. He still believes he has at least three novels in him so to keep his morale up he promptly proposes to friend Sonia Brownell (played by Bonas), a 30-year-old assistant magazine editor. When Sonia learns that she is his only hope, she must decide whether to succumb to the advances of Lucien Freud or enter a platonic marriage with one of the country’s most renowned writers.
The production explores the private side of one of the most public icons of the 20th century. This theme of public and private contrasts is reflected in the staging which reveals a hospital corridor behind Room 65, the hospital room where the action takes place.
Creative and Cast
Writer Tony Cox
Director Jimmy Walters
Designer Rebecca Brower
Lighting Designer Simon Gethin Thomas
Musical Score Jeremy Warmsley
Production Manager Ned Lay
Stage Manager Andrina Drew
Assistant Director Piers Sherwood Roberts
Assistant Designer Daisy Blower
Sonia Brownell Cressida Bonas
George Orwell Peter Hamilton Dyer
Lucian Freud Edmund Digby Jones
Fred Warburg Robert Stocks
Nurse Rosie Ede
Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD
Tuesday 5th – Saturday 23rd September 2017