First published in The Times, Monday August 17 2015
David Byrne’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1933 memoir is still a tale of two cities, though not in the way you might expect. The Paris sections are drawn directly from Orwell’s work, with Richard Delaney, the actor, giving a convincing first-person account of the young Eric Blair’s transition from wannabe poet to politically engaged novelist, after living on the breadline in the French capital for two years. These scenes are nimbly interwoven with extracts from a contemporary account of life on benefits and the minimum wage in London, from the journalist Polly Toynbee (Carole Street).
As Byrne’s production, co-directed by Kate Stanley, cuts back and forth between the twin settings, the parallels between Blair’s experience of poverty in the Paris of the late 1920s and the stresses and humiliations of living on nine pounds a day in a contemporary metropolis come through potently. Where Blair, having sold his clothes and pawned his valuables, is forced to take on a merciless job in a hotel kitchen, Toynbee signs up with an employment agency and endures a series of zero hours contracts.
In one telling scene, working as a hospital porter, a doctor with whom she had previously lunched ignores her. While the stark inequality they encounter incenses the two writers, both are acutely aware that they can, as Orwell puts it, “pull on the rope” at any time and return to their privileged lives.
Street and Delaney undoubtedly fit the bill as their famous alter egos, and the conceit of merging the two texts works reasonably well thanks to the energy and commitment of the ensemble. There are times when the script struggles to surpass its polemical origins, with the first-person address to the audience occasionally taking on a hectoring tone. Byrne’s dramatisation of Orwell and Toynbee’s themes is at its most powerful in the play’s quieter moments.