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)
Wendy Tolson, Retired, Halifax
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 iOS 8 apps and features: eight iPhone settings you need to look at after you install update
- 2 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 3 'F*ck it, I quit': KTVA reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 4 Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Cilla, episode 2, ITV, review: Sheridan Smith continues to shine as the young singer
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Foo Fighters: Live 2015 tour dates announced for Sonic Highways
Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster
Top Gear to launch in France after Jeremy Clarkson banned from driving on roads
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God