New Diorama (****)
Today it might be termed poverty tourism, but when George Orwell moved to Paris in the late 1920s and subsequently wrote his memoir of living below the breadline, it was with serious intent.
At least, David Byrne’s excellent adaptation, intertwining excerpts from Orwell’s Down & Out with Polly Toynbee’s 2003 account, Hard Work, of living in London for several month as unemployed and homeless, accords Orwell a form of integrity, albeit a complex one. As played by Richard Delaney’s slightly prim but earnest Eric Blair – later to be George Orwell – you can be in no doubt he’s on a mission to improve his lot as a writer whilst having his eyes opened to life on the wrong side of the tracks.
`I’m Eric Blair, I’m a bad writer’, he declares at the beginning `but I will become George Orwell and a better writer’. His Paris experience will be the making of him.
Thus the outlines of this literary education in a staging that so entertainingly confronts the moral efficacy of Orwell and Toynbee’s journey. It’s one thing to witness and record poverty and the dehumanising systems that inhibit self-improvement and social mobility. It’s quite another to know, like war correspondents, there is an escape hatch.
More power then to Byrne who first staged Down & Out in Edinburgh last year and has enlarged it to ninety minutes for London in a production of tremendous vitality and a Gogolesque relish for larger-than-life colour.
Characters appear as if popping out from the pages of a book, from underneath beds, inside bed clothes in slightly manic fashion, particularly in the episode of Orwell’s stint in a hotel kitchen.
Part Wesker’s The Kitchen, part Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Thing, it’s a world marked by exploitation and underpay similarly alluded to in Toynbee’s unskilled jobs in a factory and as a hospital worker where she is advised not to work too fast because of putting permanent workers in a poor light.
Toynbee provides the grit in this theatrical feast which serves to remind us vividly how little has changed in ninety years and how much we take for granted by those in the service industries.
Down & Out in Paris and London runs at the New Diorama to May 14, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, April 2016