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Theatre review: 1984, West Yorkshire Playhouse


It seems a suitably Orwellian reward to the extraordinary success story that is Nottingham Playhouse’s co-production of 1984.  On the day that tickets for its keenly-awaited opening at the Almeida in London went on sale, the company was told - without warning - it faced losing all of its funding from Nottinghamshire County Council.

The authority is grappling with ways of making £154m in cuts over the next three years and has argued that located as it is in the city of Nottingham, the Playhouse did not come under its jurisdiction whilst those theatres that did, did not receive any grant support.

I dare say it’s not appropriate to evoke O’Brien’s chilling phrase during Winston Smith’s interrogation that the future was like a “boot stamping on a human face” but it must have felt a little bit like that when the news broke.

For Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse have produced a work of extraordinary quality and intensity here that has been wooing audiences not just in the Robin Hood County but everywhere it goes.

It is relatively rare in the theatre to hear audiences truly gasp in horror but on this night in Leeds they did three times. Glancing round the packed Quarry Theatre I was half expecting walkouts as the de-briefing of Orwell’s quiet hero got anatomical. But in the end everyone was too riveted to their seats to bother with that.

This is a very neat theatrical telling of the classic dystopian parable which is more a study of internal tension and tiny acts of defiance as it is a political drama.

There is of course the love story at the centre of it all. Sex and intimacy as an act of opposition – a hand grenade of animal excitement tossed into a world of mind-numbing bureaucratic routine and insecurity.

Orwell’s vision of austerity, the depressing canteen meals, threadbare socks and eked-out chocolate rations are skilfully brought to life. We eavesdrop on Winston and Julia’s affair through a secret camera as they do their best to re-enact the rituals of love in the claustrophobic confines of an antique shop’s back room.

And there is probably the most exciting live set change I have ever witnessed as the couple are betrayed following an exquisitely nervy counter with party bigwig O’Brien and their lives explode in a wail of sirens, masked guards and torture.

This production has no doubt caught something of the zeitgeist with this summer’s revelations by former NSA employee Edward Snowden that America is watching you through your telephone or computer. But just as two plus two equals four, it would have done anyway.

West Yorkshire Playhouse to 16 November. London Almeida from 8 February 8 to 29 March 2014.