Year of the Rat is unlikely to delight the Inner Hebrides tourist board with its stark depiction of life on the isolated island of Jura. It was there that George Orwell completed the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948. Roy Smiles has taken a few liberties in Year of the Rat, but his well-observed collection of strands from, and references to, Orwell's life, personality and fiction allows him to assemble an entertaining and somehow real play that resonates beyond Big Brother and Room 101.
Already suffering from the tuberculosis that would shortly kill him, a lonely Orwell is typing frantically, scarcely aware of his austere surroundings. A recent arrival is Sonia Brownell, one of London's more glamorous editorial assistants, followed hot on her heels by an infinitely more heavyweight figure, Cyril Connolly. That neither of the two ever visited Orwell on Jura doesn't deter Smiles, who, as Connolly says of himself in the play, "never lets reality interfere with a quip".
Hugo Speer, in only his second stage appearance since making his name in The Full Monty, turns out to be a more than credible Orwell. He conveys the writer's intellect, compassion and quietly self-deprecating humour while somehow speaking with a slight croak – as might a man who had taken a bullet in the throat from a fascist.
Orwell is after Brownell, and so is Connolly it seems. Into this ménage à trois drop a few of Orwell's imaginary friends and foes. No sooner has Connolly disappeared to the kitchen "where the cockroaches go to die" than Boxer, the horse from Animal Farm, makes an appearance to chat to his old creator. Paul Kemp is as adept at playing doleful Boxer as he is pontificating as "Napoleon" (a piggy-featured Stalin), or as the urbane Rat.
In an admirably detailed production, Alan Strachan gets some lovely performances from all four actors. Claudia Elmhirst's striking Sonia brings much-needed warmth into Orwell's tortured existence. He has, he says, no pride where she is concerned, but for her his love-making is too automatic. In refusing him further sexual encounters her steeliness – the hauteur of her class – glints, while Speer's baffled desperation is almost unbearable. As the bumbling Connolly, Nicholas Blane gives a witty, well-rounded performance. Year of the Rat brims with dialogue and characters that take on a fully developed life of their own.
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