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1984 - Sewell Barn Theatre (13.10.2023)

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

I'm going to have to make the assumption, possibly incorrectly, in writing this review that you've read George Orwell's dystopian novel, or at least are aware of the content. Such is the complexity of the theme of the book, it's difficult to write a brief precis, so I'm not going to waste words doing so.

In this startling adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, staged at a suitably stripped-back Sewell Barn, I was both enthralled and appalled in equal measure at times, such was the intensity of the production.

It began almost inauspiciously as main protagonist Winston Smith, played in tremendous physical fashion by Jez Pike, stares into the distance for a slightly uncomfortable length of time, drawing the audience into his sense of ennui as the days pass drearily by.

As the story moves on, Winston embarks upon an illicit romance with Julia, played with a carefree rebellious spirit by a lively and captivating Jo Parker Sessions. The two of them are captured and tortured by the Thought Police, led by O'Brien - a cool yet menacing portrayal from John Dane - until Winston eventually succumbs to the pressure and pledges allegiance to Big Brother.

Throughout, our three leads are flanked by a fantastic supporting cast, including Alison Utting displaying a flexibility in a multi-role performance, young Cleo Whiteley as the earnest, over-eager potential apprentice Thought Police member, and Hans-Christian Harder as the undercover agent, Charrington.

A special mention also for John Holden, as he stood in at the last moment for the roles of Syme and the book club host. Apart from the briefest of looks at a script he brought on stage with him as a safety net, I wouldn't have had a clue that he hadn't previously rehearsed the parts.

My only criticisms are with the script itself. Looking at it objectively, I think the narrative, certainly in the early stages, was a little vague. We were frequently transported from dream to apparent reality, and then also became a fly-on-the-wall at a book club, in a time period seemingly around 100 years after 1984, as they discuss Winston's diary. I didn't quite understand the need for the book club, except to slightly patronisingly hammer home the lessons that we are all acutely aware can be learned from in modern times.

That's small beer though compared to what was a show packed full of towering performances, superb, detailed direction from Ginny Porteous, and a display of technical excellence and accuracy from the production team. It's one that will live long in the memory.

You can catch the remaining performances of 1984 at Sewell Barn Theatre from 18-21 October, with a matinee on the Saturday.


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