Circa Theatre
April 18-May 16 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Year if the Rat is set on the Scottish Hebridean island of Jura in 1948 – when an ill George Orwell was finishing his novel 1984. A quick spot of googling reveals that 1948 was a year of the rat in the Chinese Zodiac – and so was 1984 and the last Chinese calendar year (February 2008 to January 2009). Despite his tuberculosis, Orwell has secluded himself in a damp and cold cottage to finish the novel – and it seems to have taken a toll on both his mental and physical wealth. His isolation is interrupted by a motley group of characters, both real and fictional.

The story dwells on his relationship with literary sexpot Sonia Brownell, whom he has invited to the island. He is surprised that she has come, and even more surprised when she suggests that they go to bed together. Their romantic interlude is cut short by the unexpected arrival of Orwell’s Etonian classmate and Brownell’s boss, Cyril Connolly, who is determined to break up the relationship. Interspersed into this romantic comedy plotline are scenes in which Orwell converses with characters from his novels: Boxer the Clydesdale horse and the Stalin-like pig from Animal Farm, and the Rat from Room 101 in 1984. The Rat wears a traditional Scottish accent and speaks with a broad Scottish accent – I assumed this was to signify that Orwell is increasingly failing to distinguish between fiction and reality in his present. The ‘surreal’ moments of the play stay in relatively safe territory – it’s not entirely clear whether they are dream sequences, manifestations of the depths of Orwell’s psyche or if Orwell is increasingly taking flights from sanity.

The many aspects of Orwell – brilliant novelist, frontline journalist, witty and insightful essayist are diminished as he is portrayed as being mentally fragile and romantically (and sexually) frustrated. Despite the (unwanted) presence of a former Eton classmate, there is little analysis as to what led Orwell to reject his privileged background in favour of social justice. Jason Whyte portrays Orwell as emotionally complex – simultaneously filled with self loathing and a sense of intellectual and moral superiority. The performances of Jessica Robinson (as Sonia) and Simon Vincent (as the three characters from Orwell’s novels) are solid, with Robinson in particular nailing the mannered comedy in the script. A standout for me was Jason Ward Kennedy as the swaggering and bombastic Cyril, whose pronouncements on art, love and life had me in stitches, whilst he managed to convey that he is underneath a concerned (if self interested) friend.

Although Year of the Rat is an entertaining and attentive production, it is not especially illuminating of Orwell or his works.