Review: Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Fun fact to remember for future pub quizzes: George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair. This is just one of the things to be learnt about the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion. The play, directed by Jimmy Walters, charts the final months of Orwell’s life following the publication of 1984. Admitted to University College Hospital suffering from tuberculosis, a fragile George proposes to young, glamorous magazine editor Sonia Brownell, who goes on to become the second Mrs Orwell. Cox examines their relationship and the motivations of each party in this fascinating and moving new play, which also touches on Orwell’s politics, his guilt over the death of his first wife Eileen, and the universal need to be remembered after we’re gone.

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Despite its title, the play is just as much the story of Mr Orwell as that of his wife, and Peter Hamilton Dyer absolutely commands the stage for almost the entirety of the evening. A hunched, pathetic figure in clothes that are far too big for him, racked by ill health and desperately lonely and afraid, it’s tragically clear that his wits are still as sharp as ever, and he longs to believe he has at least three more novels in him. George loves Sonia without hope or agenda, knowing full well her heart belongs to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his simple joy in just being around her is devastatingly well played by Hamilton Dyer.

As his new wife, Cressida Bonas is equally compelling. Clipped, efficient and often impatient, she also demonstrates an obvious affection for George that makes it difficult to work out Sonia’s true motivation. While she certainly seems swayed by the suggestion that she could benefit financially from the marriage, her grief when she learns of his death and her desire to honour his final wishes appear genuine and heartfelt. She’s not a particularly likeable character in the story – all our sympathy is spent on the vulnerable figure of Orwell himself – but at the same time, she’s not a villain of the piece either, and we find ourselves admiring her sacrifice whilst still questioning her motives.

A brilliant cast is completed by Rosie Ede as Orwell’s no-nonsense nurse, Robert Stocks as his fiercely loyal publisher Fred Warburg, and Edmund Digby Jones in a particularly intriguing performance as Lucian Freud. His scenes with Bonas are marked by a simmering sexual tension, while with her husband he’s relaxed and humorously frank about his own and others’ shortcomings. (In fact the play in general is surprisingly funny, considering it’s a story about a dying man.)

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
The majority of the action takes place in George’s hospital room, though some conversations are held in the corridor behind, amplified for our benefit and with the actors visible through the bedroom windows. This presents a slight confusion, because it isn’t made clear if these discussions can also be heard inside the room – perhaps this isn’t hugely significant given that George is always fully aware of Sonia’s romantic indifference to him, but it’s a minor frustration in an otherwise excellent production.

Cox delights in name-dropping famous writers and artists throughout as a way of reminding us that the play’s based on true events: Picasso, DalĂ­, Thomas Mann, Norman Mailer all get a mention. Even so, you don’t need to know much – or anything at all, really – about Orwell or his work to enjoy this very human story of love, fear and hope. Beautifully performed with warmth and humour, Mrs Orwell is a fascinating and entertaining insight into the life and death of a legend.

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Review: Crime and Punishment at Jack Studio Theatre

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, Arrows & Traps have got in early with their production of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But put aside any off-putting thoughts of epic 600-page novels; this short, sharp adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus cuts straight to the heart of the story and is all over in a gripping hour and a half.

Focusing less on either the crime or the punishment, instead this adaptation gives us a disturbing insight into the mind of a murderer during the days between the two. By the time the play begins, the murder – of an elderly pawnbroker and her sister – has already been committed, and Raskolnikov (Christopher Tester) finds himself drawn into a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare with police inspector Porfiry (Stephen MacNeice), who’s convinced of his guilt. In desperation Raskolnikov turns to Sonia (Christina Baston), a virtuous young woman forced into prostitution to save her family, who offers his only chance of redemption.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Flashbacks give the audience an opportunity to piece together the events that preceded the murder, as well as the crime itself – but also demonstrate the fractured state of mind of the killer, who himself looks back in an attempt to justify his actions. In the present, Raskolnikov explains to Porfiry that he believes some crimes – including this one – are necessary for the greater good. This is the debate at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and Campbell and Columbus’ adaptation gets straight down to it, mercilessly axeing several additional characters and plotlines, without losing any of the essence of what the story’s all about.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled a brilliant new cast for this production. Stephen MacNeice is an affable Porfiry, a self-confessed “freeform” investigator whose complex relationship with the suspected murderer begins to feel more like that of father and son than detective and criminal. As Sonia, Christina Baston has a physical fragility that contrasts with the spiritual and moral strength that sustain her – before transforming in flashbacks into the hunched, sneering old pawnbroker who’s about to meet a messy end. But this is ultimately Raskolnikov’s story, and Christopher Tester is captivating as the tormented killer. Despite being a violent criminal driven by his own arrogance, he’s also charming, articulate and capable of great kindness… and so like the biblical Lazarus who’s referenced throughout the play, we desperately want to believe he has the potential for salvation.

Anyone who’s seen Arrows & Traps in action before knows that they have a signature style – but they’re also not afraid to take a risk and step into new territory. Crime and Punishment is the company’s 10th production, and in a lot of ways is quite different to anything they’ve done before, with a cast of just three actors and a running time of only 90 minutes. Yet this is also recognisably an Arrows production, not just in its strong acting performances, but in the use of contemporary music, atmospheric lighting (courtesy of Karl Swinyard) and a dreamlike quality, particularly in movement director Will Pinchin’s exquisite slow-motion murder scene. (I never thought I’d be able to describe watching two old ladies get bludgeoned with an axe as beautiful, but there we go.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

So what we really get with this production is a super-concentrated Arrows experience, stripped back to basics but bearing all the hallmarks of a company and director who know exactly what they’re doing. An intense psychological drama, the play has the entire audience holding our breath throughout, and asks some very real, and relevant, questions about the nature of crime and whether there’s actually any such thing as good and evil.

Think you know Crime and Punishment? Think again.

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Review: The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre

Proud Haddock’s production of The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus opens in Egypt in 1907, where two archaeologists and a team of local men are sifting through scraps of ancient papyrus. It’s an appropriate introduction to Tony Harrison’s 1988 play, which has itself been unearthed and given new life nearly 30 years after its last London performance.

Grenfell and Hunt (Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves) are academics searching for a lost satyr play by Sophocles. Dismayed at their lack of success – all they seem to find is endless petitions for help from the dispossessed – Grenfell grows increasingly obsessive, and Hunt starts to worry about him… with good reason, as it turns out. Before we quite know what’s happening, Grenfell’s been possessed by the god Apollo, while Hunt’s transformed into Silenus, and (with a bit of audience participation) dramatically released his band of dancing satyrs.

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

From here, the story takes us to ancient Greece and into the lost play, Ichneutae, where Apollo charges the satyrs with tracking down his lost cattle, only for them to discover instead something far more valuable to him. And finally, we’re whisked off to London’s South Bank in 2016, where the effects of that discovery are still being felt – but not necessarily in a good way.

Believe it or not, all of this happens in 75 minutes. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a whirlwind of a production that’s barely contained by the Finborough’s tiny stage, and allows very little time to process what’s going on – yet still somehow manages to remain accessible to those of us without a degree in ancient Greek literature. Don’t get me wrong, the story is completely bonkers, and there are certainly a good few moments where we’re left wondering what on earth just happened (the sudden appearance of Hermes the man-baby would be a good example). But it all comes together in the end, with a powerful message not only about the dichotomy between high and low art, but more broadly about the divide between rich and poor, and a direct appeal to the audience which challenges us to examine our own attitudes. (That said, the perfectionist in me would have welcomed a chance to circle back to the beginning of the story, if only to find out what happened to Grenfell and Hunt.)

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves lead the cast with strong performances, handling with ease Harrison’s rhyming verse. Purbeck particularly excels during a wild-eyed transformation from Grenfell to Apollo, his head snapping back and forth as the two personas war against each other. Glaves’ key moment comes late in the play, but is worth waiting for; as Silenus, he recounts movingly the flaying of his brother satyr Marsyas, who was punished by Apollo for having the temerity to become an accomplished flute player. But perhaps most memorable – for reasons that become obvious (costume designer Vari Gardner, take a bow) – are the satyrs, played by Dylan Mason, James Rigby, Nik Drake, Sacha Mandel, Dannie Pye and Adam Small. Energetic and irreverent, they stomp, dance and joke their way through the middle section of the play… yet this story is not destined to end happily, and their 21st century incarnations channel their energy in much darker ways.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a decidedly odd play, entertaining and tragic in equal measure. Jimmy Walters’ production could at times move a little more slowly, and could certainly benefit from a slightly bigger stage – but given the nature of the play and its message, a small theatre, in which audience and artists are within touching distance, feels like an appropriate setting for the rediscovery of this little-known work.

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Interview: Jimmy Walters, The Trackers of Oxyrynchus

Following his acclaimed production of John Osborne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern, director Jimmy Walters returns to the Finborough Theatre in January with Tony The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Tony Harrison. Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves star in the play’s first London staging for nearly 30 years as Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two archaeologists sent to Egypt to dig up lost poetry and plays, who end up becoming part of a story they’ve discovered.

“It was a whole new challenge with this project,” explains Jimmy. “I thought, do I want to do the same thing again or do I want to make apples and oranges? I think if you constantly put yourself outside of your comfort zone then that’s a much more exciting place to be.”

Photo credit: Robert Boulton
Photo credit: Robert Boulton

Despite the weighty title, audiences won’t need an in-depth knowledge of Greek literature to appreciate the play: “It helps to know that the satyr play was staged deliberately after three tragedies in order to lighten the mood of the evening, and that satyrs are half man half goat creatures with large penises. Other than that you can just be entertained and learn a lot, which is great. I would say that this is not a dense academic play, despite the long title. It’s completely accessible with some laugh out loud moments put up against some real poignancy. This is our most entertaining play we’ve done yet but also the most powerful. Hands down.”

This is not the first play Jimmy’s directed that hasn’t been performed for many years; he co-founded his company, Proud Haddock, to celebrate unearthed stories from classical playwrights. What’s the appeal of unearthing these buried treasures? “I think it’s that great thing of taking a playwright who’s loved by many and unearthing a story of theirs people don’t know very well. If you just perform the classics then it becomes more about people wondering how you are going to approach each scene. ‘I wonder how they’ll do the balcony scene’, and everyone pre-empts ‘to be or not to be’. To tell a story people aren’t familiar with by someone they regard as a genius has a very strong effect.”

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus was originally written for a one-off performance in the ancient stadium of Delphi, and was later seen at the National Theatre. Jimmy believes that the absence of any other recent adaptations makes his job as director easier: “It’s why if you talk to actors who play roles other actors have played before, they try and avoid watching their performances. It narrows your choices and you can run the risk of imitating. Also, if I had access to lots of adaptations I’d probably freak myself out and put so much pressure on myself. I think at the end of the day it must come from you. Those instincts you have from reading the script are yours and you should just go for it.”


Tony Harrison is an award-winning poet-playwright, who last year won the David Cohen Prize for Literature. What is it that makes his writing so special? “He loves contrast,” says Jimmy. “He’s a poet, so that gives the play a rhythm and the contrasts are everywhere. Contemporary v period, ancient Greek language against modern day slang, high art against low art, rich against poor etc. He doesn’t deal with any grey areas. He makes the familiar strange, and takes things you’re used to hearing in a certain way and turns them on their head. It’s punchy, unapologetic and deeply affecting. You have to be careful with this word because it gets thrown around too often – but he is a genius.”

Although The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus deals with ancient texts, and is set in the early 20th century, it still has plenty to say to modern audiences: “Oh, big time,” Jimmy confirms. “The last section of the play actually takes place in modern day London and with everything that’s happened recently with Brexit and the lack of unity in the country, this couldn’t be more relevant. It could have been written yesterday.”

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is at the Finborough Theatre from 3rd-28th January.

Interview: John Ginman, Frankenstein

2016 is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and critically acclaimed Blackeyed Theatre are marking the occasion with a brand new adaptation of the classic horror story. The production, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, will feature Bunraku-style puppetry designed and built by Yvonne Stone, with live music composed by Ron McAllister – and sees the company reunite with John Ginman, who wrote their hugely successful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 2013.

“It’s refreshing to work again with such a talented team who have a commitment to high standards,” John explains. “Blackeyed Theatre’s work keeps evolving but the key ingredients are always the same: a passion for distinctive live theatre, strong creative leadership, a company of multi-skilled performers, and a determination to take bold, innovative live shows to audiences throughout the country.”

Frankenstein, Blackeyed Theatre

In 1816, nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley composed the first draft of Frankenstein as part of a writing competition with Lord Byron, John Polidori and Percy Shelley, during a wet summer’s stay at Lake Geneva. Two centuries later, her novel continues to both fascinate and horrify readers and audiences across the world. But how can we explain this enduring popularity?

“It’s partly a matter of genre,” John suggests. “Gothic fiction has been popular with readers for more than two centuries – though it’s fair to say that Frankenstein has reached its largest audiences through its numerous stage, and later film, adaptations. In writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley has created a powerful new version of an ancient myth. Its narrative seeks unashamedly to ‘chill the blood’, which readers and audiences love. However, the story engages us even more deeply because it still poses questions that challenge us. Should we limit what scientists are allowed to research, in an age when boundaries to knowledge no longer seem to exist? And how can we ensure that we take responsibility for the discoveries we make?”

As with any classic work, adapting Frankenstein was not without its challenges: “The key challenge is to translate a 200-page novel into two hours of theatre for audiences who may or may not be familiar with the book. You have to be selective and identify what’s essential in terms of story, character, tone and themes. The bottom line is that the story has to be clear. It also has to work as theatre, and you have to achieve this with images, space, sound and rhythm, of which the spoken words are also a part. You have to remember that as you are writing.

“The other challenge is to honour the novelist’s vision. In this case I wanted to put on stage the important aspects of the novel that are often excluded in adaptations. We’ve used Robert Walton’s story as a frame to focus the whole action, which allows The Creature to tell the story from his point of view – it’s clearly important to Mary Shelley that we understand how he thinks and feels.

“It’s also wise to be aware of any shortcomings the book might have. In this case, surprisingly perhaps, the female characters have less depth than the men, and I’ve worked to give more substance to Elizabeth, in particular.”

John reflects on his previous collaboration with Blackeyed Theatre back in 2013: “Dracula confirmed my sense that you can achieve almost anything in a live show with very simple theatrical elements, and that you have to trust the skill and versatility of the performers to create the effects you need. The script is like a musical score and so really comes to life when it’s being performed. Also, I noted the hunger of audiences for powerful live theatre in venues large and small the length of the UK, and that’s been very encouraging.”

In a unique and exciting twist, the production will feature a full-size 6’4″ Bunraku-style puppet, which needs up to three people to manipulate it. It’s been designed and built by Yvonne Stone, who’s working with Blackeyed Theatre for the first time, and whose previous credits include Warhorse and His Dark Materials for the National Theatre.

What does John feel this use of puppetry adds to the play? “That will be for the audience to say! Puppets can be remarkably expressive and add more dimensions to the experience of a live show. Bunraku has a wonderful, long tradition in Japanese theatre, but we’re using its techniques here in a completely contemporary way.”

Audiences across the UK will have the opportunity to see the show as it embarks on an extensive tour later this month, taking in over 30 venues before Christmas and additional locations in the spring. “My chief hope is that the audience will enjoy a powerful two hours of theatre, something quite distinct from watching a film version, for example,” concludes John. “I also hope that they will realise there is much more to the novel than the familiar horror story about a crazed scientist.”

Frankenstein opens at Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, on 22nd September. Full tour dates and ticket info can be found on Blackeyed Theatre’s website.