Review: Down and Out in Paris and London by New Diorama Theatre / PIT

Down and Out in Paris and London, written and directed by NDT / PIT Artistic Director, David Byrne, fuses two books, written half a century apart. The first by George Orwell, which lends its title to the production, and the second, Hard Work by Polly Toynbee, a journalist and reporter for The Guardian, in which she researches minimum-wage, zero-hours contracts by living for several months as one of those reliant on them to survive.

”I am a terrible writer” states Eric Blair (soon-to-be George Orwell) at the beginning of the play, as he embarks upon a life among the poor, living on next-to-nothing in 1930s Paris. By the end of his experience he has the material for his first book, and the understanding to become one of the world’s finest literary prophets. Toynbee, on the other hand, confesses to having had fantasies of “great household management and being inventive with lentils”, only to find the paradox that having very little money actually prevents her from economising.

In this fast-flowing production, Byrne weaves a story that transitions seamlessly between 1930s Paris and modern-day London as Toynbee and Orwell’s experiences parallell and counterpoint each other. Orwell’s are much more raw, the characters frank in their exploitation of those less fortunate than themselves, and the cameraderie between the destitute is engaging and uplifting, displaying Orwell’s fondness for his subjects. Toynbee’s experience is much more depressing and isolated, with those profiting from her misery more subtle in their abuse, and her story is more chilling in its display of corporate and political indifference.

The play is performed in a black box, utilising a grubby bed, a set of double-hinged doors and two wooden desks, which wheel frenetically around the stage as the settings shift. The two worlds are not only interspersed, but sometimes happen simultaneously, the most memorable of which sees Mike Aherne, doubling a French pawnbroker and British Brightside salesman, reel-in and then rip-off Orwell and Toynbee gleefully, in quick succession.

Richard Delaney plays Orwell with confidence and compassion, giving a detailed, mature and engaging performance; Stella Taylor’s myriad of characterisations are supremely skilful, each one clear and credible without ever being caricatures; Andrew Strafford-Baker plays a similarly jaw-dropping range of parts, enjoying each so much that the audience cannot help but do the same. But the honours of the evening have to go to Andrew McLeod who gives a mature and assured performance as Orwell’s Russian emigré friend, Boris, wringing out every inch of comedy from Byrne’s masterful script, while still presenting an empathetic, likeable and intricate character who sweeps the story, and the audience, along with his energy and lust for life.

Down and Out in Paris and London is a skilful commentary on today’s austerity-focussed society, of which Orwell would have been proud, and the inclusion of Toynbee’s work in the piece takes the subject much deeper than either book achieved on its own. More than that, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatricality and humour that gets its point across without ever resorting to wallowing in tragedy. It’s at the Edinburgh Festival this Summer, and I strongly recommend it!

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