George Orwell’s first full-length book, Down and Out in Paris and London, documents the Eton graduate’s foray into a life of artistic poverty in the 1920’s. About 80 years later, Polly Toynbee spent a period of time living on the minimum wage in London to write her book, Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain. Writer and director David Byrne (not that one), deconstructing and interweaving these two books, creates a hard-hitting new play that confronts contemporary notions of social progress by demonstrating that experiences of a life in poverty have not improved, and “the system” created to support some of society’s most vulnerable people is inherently flawed.
A finely tuned, energetic ensemble of six multi-role a huge range of characters across London and Paris; only Richard Delaney as narrator George Orwell plays one part. His character consistency is the linchpin that holds the Paris story together, countered by Carole Street’s impressively performed Polly Toynbee. Mike Aherne, Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Taylor play a diverse array of smaller characters spread across both time periods using accents and costume to distinguish them. There is potential for confusion what with the constantly alternating worlds, but these three actors support clarity and understanding. They are also clearly talented performers; the only downside is that they didn’t have larger roles to really sink their teeth into.
Structurally, Byrne’s script is sound with clear transitions and sufficient exposition. He skillfully avoids audience confusion despite the constant switching between the two different settings. Polly and George embark on similar character journeys, albeit with slightly differing initial aims, but end with the same deeper understanding of society’s invisible working poor. The play is narration-heavy, restricting meaningful character interactions to unsatisfying short scenes. It also can feel more like a lecture than a performance. The fragmentary nature successfully drives the message home, particularly as adjacent scenes in the different settings focus on identical topics, including the bureaucracies of job hunting, flat hunting, and work environments. The play is robust and important enough that it deserves to be lengthened, which would allow for more development of the characters and scenes that are already present. Further emphasis on the individual human lives affected by crushing poverty will also generate further gravitas and audience empathy.
Down & Out In Paris and London returns to London’s New Diorama this spring (where Byrne is artistic director). Hopefully its message will have a wide reach and move people to rally in support of the working poor, particularly in the face of the government’s promised brutal welfare cuts. Its message is a vital one backed by a good script and great performances that deserves more attention.
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