Orwell classic sounds a dull note


Sell a Door, Uppingham Theatre


IF ONE thing impressed most about this evening at the theatre, it was the front of house team. Uppingham Theatre provides for a wide catchment around Rutland's second main town (the first is Oakham), which might be, in George Orwell's 1984 terminology, rather a ‘memory hole' without it.  

Winston Smith (Jack Cosgrove) outflanked by attendants

Like Warwick's Bridge House Theatre, and unlike nearby Nevill Holt (previously a feeder prep school), it is owned and administered.

On this Orwellian evening, they were marshalling a large group from the school, Fifth and/or Lower Sixth, keeping a quiet, unflustered eye on proceedings. The number of actual outsiders, rural punters like me, was small; but perhaps just as well. 

Providing an additional service for the burgeoning touring companies whose work, and modest recompense, is vital to young actors setting out, Uppingham was h

 by an arts-conscious Public School for the community.

The greeting team upon arrival was a well-trained, couth group of Sixth Formers, who have a courteous answer for most tiresome questions and the kind of competence and precision one would admire in a school sports team. Their demeanour and problem-solving were, to put it mildly, impressive.  osting an ensemble I very much liked the look of.  

Sell a Door Theatre, founded in Liverpool and with Scottish connections, is now based in London (Greenwich, where their recent Ibsen's Ghosts was based); and run largely by a courageous duumvirate of artistic director David Hutchinson and managing director Phillip Rowntree. The pair trained together at LIPA (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts).  

Both have clocked up considerable directorial credits. Rowntree, who acted on this occasion (and with, I thought, some acumen), has directed The History Boys, Spring Awakening, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey; as well as produced The Lord of the Flies – it sounds like a bit of a Balthus/Tuke collection - as well as adapting Cinderella for Sell a Door (would the acronym ‘SAD' be a more engaging, Schmerz-ridden company name?). Many of these were staged just down the road at the Greenwich Theatre (the first two you can find recently reviewed here, in stagings by other companies.)   

Jaime Laird as the ominous Emmanuel Goldstein, incarnation of Big Brother

Hutchinson, who directed SAD's  The Hound of the Baskervilles, Journey's End, A Christmas Carol, Dracula, Peter (Stacy Sobieski's new take on the Peter Llewellyn Davies/Peter Pan story) and Arthur Miller's seventh play and 1944 flop The Man Who Had all the Luck, and has had continuing work for Liverpool theatres, took the helm for this 1984. I wish I could applaud him here, for he is clearly a firebrand of burgeoning talent and an enabler, something the theatre always needs. 

Sell a Door is a supportive set up. Usually one directs, the other backs up as producer.

It really needed both sets of brains here. 1984 is a tough nut to crack; but wholly  well-chosen repertoire to tour round their massive circuit of 31 venues (some with double performances) - a feat of planning in itself; especially with 1984 often on Examination Boards' syllabi. 

So why does one blow hot and cold about this? Because, despite the attempt to stick loyally by Orwell's outline, and a genuine sense of threat in the air – dark sayings and unpleasant innuendo certainly help sustain this show – it was almost as if it would have been better as a radio play. Little of what went on on Hutchinson's stage – the odd cogent scene apart - did much to enhance, or redouble, the ghastliness of a world where individuality is drowned and the official Lie rules nominally unchallenged. OK, we got the message. But little more. 

As John Hurt and Richard Burton reminded us, this is a story of the little man up against the hidden oppressor. In some ways, this production jumped through all the right hoops, or a good number of them. Yet it left one breathtakingly unmoved, almost as if Big Brother were manipulating things to ensure so.

We only lightly care about Jack Cosgrove's drably unexciting Winston, someone seemingly too inept to umpire a school cricket match. One felt little or nothing for Lily Knight's Julia. For all their efforts, a worthy try, they fade into virtually nothing: cardboard cutouts one might invite to help out at Sunday School. There was fire in the belly, it's not as if they weren't trying to smoulder; but no more than Puff, The Magic Dragon.  

Worse than that, it was dull.  

None of the extras did much for me, though one liked the look and feel of George Bryan (Charrington): an American-born actor who has impacted recently in more than mere walk-on roles (in The Seagull; or in Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, both for Webber Douglas). But Hutchinson has given him here nothing that I could see by way of character, of invention; and despite an empathetic presence that still may promise much, he didn't seem too able to devise any himself, either.    

We were lucky that Owen Lindsay played the lordly turncoat, O'Brien. His interview with Cosgrove's Winston easily produced one of the evening's best sequences. Irish born and New Zealand raised, Lindsay had, paradoxically, for his kind are all crooks of a sort, some of the gravitas, the right mixture of truespeak and gobbledygook that enabled the character to emerge as almost human. You almost felt he could garner the authority to run a country, or the CIA or FSB at least. It's intriguing that he's an accomplished fight director too, for his presence often induced the feeling of a tryst; of managed verbal games; he can concoct more than one kind of fight. The play looked up several notches when Lindsay held the stage. 

David Hutchinson, Artistic Director and an enlivening force behind Sell a Door theatre

Just here and there, while others limped along, let down by an insufficiently cogent, if ritually cardboard, script from adapter Matthew Dunster - or possibly from Orwell himself - the only actor, I'm sorry to say, who caught my eye and my attention was company co-director Phillip Rowntree. Perhaps from his directing experience he has sufficient armoury of small but meaningful gesture, the integration of move and spoken line, that I sensed the whiff of an acting talent, in his role as Parsons: a Big Brother acolyte who quietly has his finger on the pulse: threatening, endearing, hitting the nub of a wobbly honesty: able to do paradox, such an asset for a serious actor.  

Whether Adrian Gee, six months out of graduation and designer of half a dozen Sell a Door productions since 2010, plus a further clutch of Lamda at the Linbury stagings before that, is responsible for the endless nonsense of stage-setting and resetting we were pointlessly subjected to, there was scant else visible to suggest his phenomenally impressive set of programme credits.  

True, if one goes for a sinister minimalism, as the pictures suggest, the designer is left with little more to do than write himself out of the plot. A case could be made for what we saw, or didn't see.  

But did anyone really deserve a set design credit, or do right by all those venues of paying punters this SAD show will visit by its close?  Some of the trivial bric-a-brac would have been ejected by most West Midland amateur companies; certainly not acceptable in a school production.  

If there was a concerning lack of focused direction, all the visual imagination had to come from the audience: it would seem that was indeed the aim. Still were these the charity shop production values of the future?   

Yet one would love to have seen some of the daring repertoire Gee has helped resurrect, and see what he did with it: Seneca's Thyestes (the Titus Andronicus of Roman theatre); Stravinsky's neglected ballet with words Persephone; SAD's own Spring Awakening and Comedy of Errors; the Strauss Intermezzo he assisted on at Buxton Opera House; or Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange.   

One's feeling is exactly the same regarding Hutchinson and his company. It would be impossible to think this dingy, limping 1984 is typical of a company and director who have obviously got verve, and an eagerness to tread where British theatre should be going.  

This spring, Anna Fox's production of Ghosts for SAD, with a different cast, may have been an entirely different experience. Equally I can't say, for certain, that this year's Journey's End wasn't one of the best London has seen since Sam West and Timothy Spall stepped out for the King's Head over a decade ago. Or on a par with Giles Croft's Nottingham Playhouse production, soon to make a longed-for comeback. One hopes so. 

‘Sell a Door has gained a reputation as one of the liveliest theatre companies in the UK', trumpets The Scotsman – no mean judge of these things - on SAD's front page blurb. Maybe. Watch this space. 05-13 

Roderic Dunnett

Touring till Sat 8 June:

Wed  8 May at Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton 7.30 p.m. (01902 321321).

Mon 13 May at The Theatre, Chipping Norton 7.45 p.m. (01608 642350)

Mon 20 May at The Castle, Wellingborough 7.30 p.m. (01933 270007)  

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