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Mrs Orwell, Old Red Lion Theatre, review: ‘Bonas is wonderful but needs more material to work with’

PUBLISHED: 17:00 08 August 2017

Sonia was not just a one trick pony hitched to the Orwell bandwagon but a fascinating person in her own right, and her character would have benefitted from deeper exploration.

George Orwell (nee Eric Blair) is on his death bed.

Set in a private room in UCH in the winter of 1949/50, the tubercular George is weakening: wearied by the most minor of exertions, his faculties remain razor sharp and his strident promotion of Socialism (a very English version) as fervent as ever.

He is visited by his publisher (the dapper, knowing and discrete Warburg played with Dickensian bustle by the excellent Robert Stocks) and Sonia.

The enigmatic, fragrant and definitely-out-of-his-league Sonia: well connected, rather disdainful, terrifically well organised and ruthlessly self-interested.

She is all these things but we never really get to know much about her. She moves in literary and arty circles and George, despite his left leanings and baggy corduroy trousers, has come to depend on her.

George, at 46, is desperately lonely since the death of his first wife. He knows he is dying but resents it because he has at least two great books left in him. He has fixed ideas about what should happen to his writings post mortem, funeral arrangements and “no biography”.

So, he proposes to Sonia, as much to find a dependable executor as to discover if he is as unattractive to women as he believes.

There is then, symmetry in the relationship that the impotent and weak George offers: no passion but no jealousy and oodles of security. She can bring certainty and glamour and, as we see with her shabby fumble with Edmund Digby Jones’ louche and effete Lucien Freud, revels in the freedom.

Peter Hamilton Dyer’s portrayal of this literary genius is superb. His fogeyish-ness, his passion for fairness and equality, his love of England, his antiquated views on women and casual homophobia: a man set in his ways with set views on tea making.

The wonderful Cressida Bonas has less rich material to work with. Tony Cox offers her two outlets for her very considerable talents – a Sonia who is either stern and competent or weepy and sad.

Sonia was not just a one trick pony hitched to the Orwell bandwagon but a fascinating person in her own right, and her character would have benefitted from deeper exploration.

Still, a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the Orwell hagiography – you decide whether Mrs’ or Mr’s.

3/5 stars

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