"Claustrophobic and marvellously inventive" – 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

Written by David Singleton on 6 August 2015 in Culture
Culture

Theatre review: Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's retelling of George Orwell's classic makes for a superbly nervy viewing experience

“I feel like I’ve just been bashed over the head for an hour,” was the off-the-cuff verdict of one of the many high-profile guests leaving the Playhouse Theatre.

The opening night for this play’s new run in the West End attracted politicians (Ed Miliband, Mary Creagh), comedians (Frank Skinner, Johnny Vegas) and a healthy smattering of BBC presenters.

The buzz after the show suggested that all were suitably impressed with what they had seen – once they had picked themselves up off the floor.


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The play begins with a reading group discussing the novel as Winston Smith listens in silent bewilderment. Winston (Matthew Spencer) then stumbles through a harrowing 101 minutes of being spied on and pursued by the state, before finally heading to Room 101 for an uncomfortable session of state-sanctioned torture.

After Edward Snowden and Guantanamo Bay, this production suggests that George Orwell’s classic work is now as relevant as ever. 

Yet the narrative is only the half of it. A sense of ominous disquiet lingers throughout. The sinister O'Brien often lurks in the shadows. The rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” is heard in various increasingly eerie forms. Audience members become voyeurs, observing Winston and lover Julia in their cosy hideaway as they appear for all to see on a giant screen.

Within its claustrophobic, wood-panelled set, the play is also a marvel of theatrical inventiveness. Nerves are on edge as Winston’s journey is punctuated by blinding lights and jolts of noise, with at least one gasp-out-loud moment.

The show opened at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013 and is now in the West End for the summer only. It deserves to be a big hit. Even if the audience feel like they’ve been bashed over the head for an hour.

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