The Year of the Rat
The Quarry Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse
In 1948 George Orwell, reeling from the unexpected success of Animal Farm, escaped to a house on the island of Jura. He went in order to concentrate on the final draft of 1984, his great dystopic novel with, at its heart, the love affair of Winston and Julia. Winston, the man out of step, is of course Orwell and Julia was his version of Sonia Brownell, the woman he wanted to marry.
The Year of the Rat presents the last few days of Orwell's stay on Jura - just a couple of pages more and he'll be finished. He had once been a writer and man of action, but now, at the end of his life (he died in January 1950, aged 49), he lived the solitary life of a writer, his rooms peopled by phantasmagoria.
Roy Smiles puts on stage Orwell himself (Hugo Speer), Sonia (Claudia Elmhirst) and Orwell's oldest friend, Cyril Conolly (Nicholas Blane). Then throws in Boxer the trusting misused work horse from Animal Farm, a pig (aka Joseph Stalin), and a rat with something of the look, intentional or not, of Oswald Mosley, Britain's most famous fascist. These three are all played by Paul Kemp.
Place the cast on a naturalistic set that made this writer want to pack his bag and take up residence, have both men quoting themselves whilst trying to invade the pantlands of Sonia, and the animals externalising Orwell's hopes, fears, obsessions and conflicts - light blue touch paper and enjoy. For this is a very enjoyable show, packed with great one-liners and delightful stage craft (the Pig's decent from heaven, balanced easy on the cutting edge of a sickle!). The audience loved it, the house almost full. The wonderful sound of an audience unified in laughter.
And although there are some attempts at serious debate here, some points well made, and the sadness of a dying man, this is at heart a play that creates laughter, a fine entertainment.
It's weaknesses are few and minor - straw hats that seem impervious to howling winds, for example, and a far too obvious display of the blood stained kerchief as Orwell cough up his lungs (nice to see actors smoking on stage again!).
Paradoxically the greatest fault is that characters are made to be a little too pleasing, the need for a good line overcoming the need for good drama.
But, if you have to have faults - being too funny is a good one!
The four actors are immaculate and will get ever better - west end run anyone? This is a sure fire hit, and how fine that it started its life in West Yorkshire's very own Playhouse.
Running until 5th April
Reviewer: Ray Brown