In 1928, in an early example of what we now call "checking your privilege", a young and Eton-educated George Orwell deliberately made himself destitute – living and working amidst the down-and-out underclass who populated the slums of Paris. Seventy-odd years later, in London, middle-class journalist Polly Toynbee did exactly the same thing. This dynamic, entertaining production adapts both Orwell's and Toynbee's memoirs, drawing parallels between the two storylines and, perhaps, revealing how little has truly changed.
Far from a dusty polemic, PIT Theatre's production is fast-paced and stylish, filled with unexpected entrances and exits and rapid character changes. Richard Delaney is captivating as George Orwell, never quite losing his authoritative bearing even as he descends into soul-destroying poverty. The rest of the six-member cast switch flawlessly between roles – and serve as impromptu stage-hands as well, wheeling around versatile pieces of set which capture the essentials of both Orwell's and Toynbee's worlds. At the very best moments, the scene transforms into a whirling cyclone of activity, reinforcing the urgency that often underpins the penniless protagonists' increasing desperation.
That free-flowing dynamism also extends to transitions between eras, with a comment from Orwell often picked up as the start of an intervention from Toynbee. Sometimes this works well: there's a fine eruption of moral anger against modern-day company BrightHouse, which is convincingly compared to exploitative pawnbrokers of the past. At other times, though, the links between the storylines are unnecessarily obvious, as though playwright David Byrne didn't quite trust us to spot the contemporary relevance of Orwell's words. In truth, his observations stand up by themselves – and so, not for the first time in life, I found myself wondering whether Polly Toynbee really added anything.
And for a play with such apparently political themes, Down And Out In Paris And London seems oddly lacking in any specific thesis. During one scene – showing Orwell working in a busy hotel kitchen – it occurred to me that there was something here to suit any ideology: a right-winger might reflect on the value of a hard day's work, a communist could celebrate the unity of the labouring class, while a social-democrat would surely lament the harsh conditions and poor pay. The only clear commentary is delivered directly to the audience by Polly Toynbee, and if you wanted an unvarnished Toynbee opinion piece you could always just buy The Guardian.
Overall then, the script reaches too often for easy, seductive parallels, and never digs quite deeply enough into how Orwell's experiences inform Toynbee's present day. But the production earns its fourth star for some fine acting, its creative, tricksy staging – and for the subtle humour it ably brings to the most serious of social themes. And there was one lesson I reflected on as I filed out of the theatre: Orwell accepted his situation as simply the way life is, while Toynbee was shocked by what she found. I'm guessing you'll be shocked too. Perhaps that's progress of a kind?