You write the reviews: Year of the Rat, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Wednesday 02 April 2008
Written by Roy Smiles and directed by Alan Strachan, Year of the Rat depicts a fictional encounter between George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Sonia Brownell on the Scottish island of Jura. Close friends, Connolly and Brownell were in London working on Horizon magazine (a literary "shop window") during Orwell's self-imposed exile on Jura. His bad health had forced him to convalesce, and writing Nineteen Eighty-Four required time and solitude.
Hugo Speer makes an intriguing Orwell, assuming the gravelly voice that was the product of a neck wound sustained in the Spanish Civil War, a lifetime of suffering from tuberculosis and a habit of smoking roll-ups. Physically, Speer captures Orwell's anorexic posture and the harsh, bloody coughing caused by his illness.
Sonia (a carefree and capable Claudia Elmhirst) is frustrated by her misogynist fellow workers at Horizon. She is fond of Orwell, who pursues her, while Connolly, the hedonistic critic and "never-quite-made-it" writer, regards her as a possible conquest. Her sorrow over a failed love affair (with the writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty) adds a layer of pathos to her character and underscores her rejection of Orwell's proposal of marriage, following a brief fumble. Nicholas Blane as Connolly, "the schoolboy obsessed with girls", is outgoing and expansive, sharing memories with Orwell of prep school, Eton and the Spanish Civil War.
The dialogue is sharp, witty and direct, with undertones of wistfulness, and conveys the social iniquities and amorality of the period. Orwell was the middle-class literary genius whose strong views on the working classes, the Communist purges under Stalin, and the Spanish Civil War were expressed with gritty, unsentimental realism. His need to direct his anger through Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is evident in Speer's sensitive portrayal.
The action is punctuated competently by Paul Kemp as "Rat", a sort of agony aunt, "Pig", representing Stalinism, and "Boxer" (the horse from Animal Farm) as the working classes. "Pig" appears suitably uncaring, "Boxer" lethargically downtrodden and "Rat" likeable, adding light relief.
The play ends some time after Orwell's death; the audience sees Sonia packing up his books and is left wanting to know more. As a thought-provoking and well-executed production, Year of the Rat deserves a wider audience than a two-thirds-full theatre on the night that I saw it.
To 5 Apr (0113-213 7700)
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