Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece returns to the London stage for the third year running

Photos Manuel Harlan

Theatre review 1984 Playhouse Theatre - credit manuel harlan

1984. If ever there was a novel written ahead of its time, this is surely it. Published in 1949, George Orwell’s political tour de force portrays a futuristic totalitarian world, characterised by constant surveillance and propaganda. It is set in Airstrip One, formerly known as England. This dystopian vision somehow feels ever-relevant, which perhaps explains why this production from Headlong has returned to the West End for the third time in as many years. Yet it’s arguably the production’s visceral, stark delivery that has kept audiences coming back for more.

We’re introduced to protagonist Winston Smith (Andrew Gower) by way of future historians analysing his illicit diary. As his account comes to life, we watch as Winston toes the party line, working as a history revisionist at the Ministry of Truth, all under the watchful eye of the omnipresent Big Brother and the Thought Police.

Theatre review 1984 Playhouse Theatre - credit manuel harlan

The production’s backdrop contrasts starkly with the ornate Playhouse Theatre’s stage, particularly when we encounter the glaringly white and hyper-modern Room 101. In fact, the set design and lighting almost steals the show. Characters seem to appear out of nowhere, with only a second of darkness between scenes. There’s a clever section where we watch Winston and his forbidden lover Julia in their hideaway, viewing them on giant screens beamed onto the stage. We thus feel complicit in their surveillance. The violently abrupt and noisy dismantling of this sanctuary startles audience members, causing some of them to cover their ears and shield their eyes.

Theatre review 1984 Playhouse Theatre - credit manuel harlan

It’s a smart decision to run the 100-minute play with no interval, which allows the slow-burning tension to be ramped up without interruption. By the time the audience is dropped into Room 101 we’re on tenterhooks  –  helplessly witnessing the grisly removal of Winston’s fingers, teeth and, finally, beliefs. This is a gripping performance that hits on many issues of direct relevance to our times. And while it might not go far enough in bringing these bang up to date, it does highlight why Orwell’s novel continues to both shock and resonate in equal measure in 2016.

Until 29 October
Hospitality Groups can hire The Ambassador Lounge. The Purple Label experience starts from £45pp and includes access to the lounge for an hour and a half before the show, half a bottle of champagne, chocolates, a programme and a complimentary cloakroom.