Review - Mrs Orwell starring Cressida Bonas at Southwark Playhouse
George Orwell was only 46 when he died from tuberculosis. He’d just published Nineteen Eighty-Four, which went on to be one of his most successful works, and wasn’t able to see the impact he would leave on the world. Had he not fallen ill, who knows what wonders he could have gone on to write.
And boy did he know it. Based on the true story of the author’s last days, Mrs Orwell is set in his private room at University College Hospital. Between coughing into a bedpan and wheezing for breath, Orwell (Peter Hamilton Dyer) insists he has “three worthwhile books” left in him – though in his state it will be impossible for him to write. His plan is to propose to close friend, thirty-something magazine editor Sonia (Cressida Bonas), as she will keep his spirits up and pull him through this bout of illness.
But what would a carefree, single, attractive young woman possible gain from marrying an ill, bedridden man mere months away from death? Money is one reason. Lots and lots of money. In modern stories this may paint her as a gold-digger, and there have been accusations of this throughout the last few decades. But does it matter? Orwell’s wife had died a few years previous, and he would be survived by one son. What use would the money be, and what better use than leaving it to a woman that makes him happy? Bounding around the room when she walks in, Sonia not only makes him feel like a young man again, but a well man.
She, more than anyone it seems, understands just how clever George was, and what he has got left to give. She honestly believes in those final three books, and the power they could have. If they are to wed, and if it were to keep him alive, she’d be doing her bit for the books the world deserves.
The sticking point for me is the introduction of the artist Lucian Freud (Edmund Digby Jones). He is present to draw a portrait of Orwell, and cannot understand why Sonia would marry the author. With a healthy edge of creep about him, he seduces Sonia, but I don’t believe anyone would fall for the like “I believe all women should smell like c**t”. Brash writing that could have been picked straight out of the satirical My Dad Made a Porno podcast series.
Hamilton Dyer is excellent as Mr Orwell. A real canny lookalike, he brings out the frustrations of a restricted man whose genius is reaching its peak. The delight on his face when Sonia steps in make him a younger man, like a teenager, but he does the moments of absolute pain justice, too. Bonas is also excellent as the titular Mrs Orwell.
I would have liked to have seen more done with the set – behind the bedroom is a corridor, mic’d up so we can hear the conversations Orwell’s nurses friends and widow-in-waiting are having. It’s utilised somewhat, but it’s a clever idea and perhaps should have been utilised.
All in all, it’s a fine production. An interesting evening of insight for anyone interested in Orwell’s life.