Proud Haddock have established a good reputation for reviving forgotten short plays – their production of two Noel Coward shorts last year was remarkable for recovering one play, The Better Half, that deserves a regular repertory place. Jimmy Walters has done another fine job here with Mrs Orwell, foregrounding a new play that asks searching and uncomfortable questions about how moths of rare charm and character are drawn to the candles of genius, and the damaging consequences thereof.

Mrs OrwellDeath ends all things and so is the comprehensive conclusion of a story, but marriage finishes it very properly too, and the sophisticated are ill-advised to sneer at what is by convention termed a happy ending. Somerset Maugham – A Razor’s Edge

While lying in his hospital bed in 1949 receiving treatment for his terminal tuberculosis, George Orwell reads the opening lines of this recently published novel with approval. Once we reach the end of Tony Cox’s new play on the final months of Orwell’s life we realise that this quotation is in effect a summary of the play too. This is an account of how Orwell prepared for death, how he married Sonia Brownell, a beautiful, lively literary sub-editor many years his junior, and the surprised, if not hostile, reaction of his closest friends and collaborators, who could not believe that she was anything other than a crafty gold-digger.

The play therefore sets out to explore and re-imagine this relationship and look into the mixed motives on both sides that lay behind the marriage. Added into the mix are Fred Warburg, Orwell’s loyal friend, business manager and publisher of 1984, Lucien Freud, a less than reliable friend to both Sonia and Orwell, and a voluble nurse, Rosie Ede, who helps to take the play into Rattigan and Coward territory, as someone whom Orwell can talk to about ordinary life outside hospitals and literature.

Along the way we are given insights into the curiously conflicted nature of Orwell’s socialism, Sonia’s brittle mix of idealism and self-interestedness, Freud’s nihilistic lawlessness, and, through Warburg, we also catch a glimpse of the contested legacy of Orwell’s estate and reputation, both of which it became Sonia’s task in real life to defend as she saw best.

Mrs OrwellCox’s play is best seen as a collection of nuanced scenes and sketches that collectively build a picture of the characters. In the published text it runs through without a break, and so it should in performance. In what is a shortish play it does no service to anyone on stage or in the audience to break for an interval at the point where George and Sonia marry each other. As a result the second half struggles to maintain the momentum of the first through no fault of the actors or author.

The performances in all the roles are uniformly fine and delightfully detailed. Peter Hamilton Dyer is a dead-ringer for Orwell with his gaunt face and unruly, floppy hair. He also captures memorably Orwell’s cantankerous nature and quirky idealism, his detachment from the realities of ordinary life, and his atavistic reactionary tendencies that somehow coexisted alongside a uniquely eloquent intellectual commitment to the welfare of Everyman. We also see his essential self-centred focus at this stage in his life: he wants a helper and nurse first, to enable him to continue to work, and a companion a long way second.

Dyer is also acts very good at acting plausibly sick throughout, whether through a racking cough, inhibited breathing and movement, or winces of pain. The detail of the performance extends to an obsessive tidiness with bedclothes and other personal items that amounts to a poignant attempt to assert dignity in the face of chaotic dissolution. It is hard to see how this role could be better inhabited.

Mrs OrwellCressida Bonas manages to project many layers and conflicts in her characterisation of Sonia. She suggests a brittle self-confidence and knowledge of how powerful her attractions are, and how she can and will use that power. But there is a lot of vulnerability as well as calculation on show too: her emotions for Orwell are complicated and presented as such. She succeeds in conveying that she is more in love with the idea of art and literature and playing a role as helpmeet to a literary giant, than she is truly interested in sex. A tension in her body language, trembling on the edge of an extreme reaction, is a tell-tale sign of how divided she is within.

Edmund Digby Jones’ representation of Freud is witty, charming and superficially attractive, but he goes on to show in a highly extreme way quite how damaging proximity to genius often is. We gradually see that Orwell’s desire to marry Sonia is quite as much self-interested as Freud’s though much more tactfully expressed, and that any criticism of Sonia for self-interest must be set against an equal weight on the other side. This play is therefore very useful study in how mixed our motives for action often are and how we delude ourselves as to their priority.

Robert Stocks has a fairly thankless role to play as Warburg who is the feed character, most frequently used as a sounding-board by the other characters. But he makes the most of a long and important monologue at the end which sets out the ground-lines for the dispute over Orwell’s legacy in the years to come. However well delivered though, this speech still leaves the impression that these issues would be better explored by extending the play to cover them, which would create a more coherent second half, and do justice to Sonia’s later life, which we can only guess at from what we see performed here.

Mrs OrwellAs the nurse Rosie Ede bustles in and out, both maternal towards Orwell and disapproving of Sonia and Lucian. She is there to provide elements of social comedy and commentary, rather like the landlady in The Deep Blue Sea, but also to allow Orwell to make several important points about his life and work.

The meticulous care of the performances extends to the realistic set and costumes which are yet another example of period precision achieved within the tight constraints of space in the Old Red Lion. This is the first time here that I have seen a back corridor added to an interior room, and this device works to fine comic effect as characters glimpse, or fail to glimpse, what is going on in Orwell’s hospital room.

The hospital room is full of enforced post-war drabness, dominated by that deadening shade of beige that Dame Edna excoriates so fiercely, functional brown furniture and the impersonal detritus of a sickroom. Designer Rebecca Brower has packed in all she could, while still leaving just enough room for the actors to clear the feet of the audience.

Mrs OrwellProud Haddock have established a good reputation for reviving forgotten short plays – their production of two Noel Coward shorts last year was remarkable for recovering one play, The Better Half, that deserves a regular repertory place. Jimmy Walters has done another fine job here by foregrounding a new play that asks searching and uncomfortable questions about how moths of rare charm and character are drawn to the candles of genius, and the damaging consequences thereof.

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…