George Orwell, under his birth name Eric Blair, quit his middle-class life to live amongst the poor whilst writing his 1933 novel Down and Out in Paris and London. Nearly a hundred years later, Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee undertook similar hardships, moving into a council flat and working several minimum wage jobs on zero-hour contracts to write her 2003 book Hard work. David Byrne’s play Down and Out in Paris and London, currently being staged at the New Diorama Theatre, is a mash-up of Orwell and Toynbee’s experiences that lifts the lid on London’s underworld – an extensive network of invisible soul’s living below the poverty line – to make the damning point that little has been done to rectify the rich-poor divide in the last century.
Toynbee’s experience parallels Orwell’s in many ways; neither was truly poor, and both exposed themselves to poverty for literary and political purposes. Byrne is unafraid of the two stories cosying up and occupying the same space on stage like reunited siblings, and transitions between the two stories are effortlessly smooth. For scenes to gel, Orwell (Richard Delaney) and Toynbee (Karen Ascoe) descend into poverty at equal pace: Orwell’s acknowledgement of his pitiful financial state is followed by Toynbee’s break down her own measly budget, and the lack of understanding Orwell receives from his social circle is followed by Toynbee’s experience of bumping into a friend in a supermarket, who thinks using just a little bit of oyster sauce is the same as cooking on a budget. In one scene, the two characters share a bed, with Orwell frantically writing on one side whilst Toynbee reads his book aloud on the other.
Ascoe’s performance is impressively three-dimensional; she’s subtle in her portrayal of Toynbee’s mounting exhaustion and deflation as her hardships persist, whilst bringing unrecognisable energy to her secondary role of Madame F in interim scenes. Delaney and Ascoe are supported by four others – Mike Aherne, Andy McLeod, Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Taylor – who adopt exaggerated (but suitably romantic) French accents for the Orwell scenes and British for Toynbee’s. Barely occupying each character for more than a scene, they whizz us fluidly through nightmarish scenarios, each complete with a set of unsympathetic and ignorant low-level managers.
Amidst the French windows, peeling wallpaper and dim lighting there are several clever staging tricks: both the bed and double door are on wheels and allow for characters to be whisked on and off stage, facilitating quick and efficient shifts between scenes and storylines. Dominic Brennan’s sound effects are particularly effective in setting the scene, with Toynbee’s voice echoing round the auditorium as she’s shown around her block of flats. The hum of French music seamlessly interchanges with the beeps and buzzes of modern day supermarkets and hospitals. Ronnie Dorsey’s costume designs are largely fitting for both stories, however the decision for Toynbee to wear a smart leather bag, and jewel studded necklace on her visits to the job centre seem inauthentic.
The inclusion of a factory scene in Toynbee’s story, in which she’s subjected to a degrading stripping process on entering and exiting the premise, is a welcome addition to her story – most likely derived from the Guardian’s exposure of the treatment of Sports Direct factory workers, uncovered by journalists Simon Goodley and Jonathan Ashby in December 2015.
In 1984, Orwell wrote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” Watching Byrne’s play you realise with a shudder that this is as true for the poor today as it was when Orwell was writing. With its hard hitting message, Down and Out in Paris and London should be essential viewing for all (and with tickets for those on Job Seekers Allowance being sold for £3 this is an accessible production), but especially those living above the poverty line, who forget to think of London’s underworld.
Down and Out in Paris and London is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 14 May 2016. For more information and tickets, see The New Diorama Theatre website.
Photo: Murdo Macleod