George Orwell’s dystopian political satire has had a resurgence of popularity since the 2016 US Presidential Election, the revelation of Facebook’s interest in spreading misinformation, and the generalised fascist-y turn global politics has taken recently. This new adaptation looks specifically to the funny side of surveillance and turns the 1949 novel into a comedy and a musical.
Writers Tom Davidson McLeod and Diana Reid with composer Riley McCullagh have reimagined the world of Big Brother, the Thought Police, and newspeak as more of a love story, focusing on Winston (Charlie Hollands) and his diarised infatuation with Julia (Anna Della Marta) with a bit of revolution thrown in, too. Winston is sappy and soft, willing to sacrifice his dreams of freedom for a glimpse of Julia’s affection, while Julia is bent on sexual satisfaction and overthrowing Big Brother, in that order.
Hollands plays a meek Winston well, especially across from Della Marta with her palpable apathy and powerful voice, and the two hold together the narrative commendably if conventionally, considering the dystopian context.
Other major Orwellian characters take part, too, including Charrington (Georgia Vella), a member of the Thought Police posing as an antiques dealer, and O’Brien (Joshua MacQueen), Winston and Julia’s connection to the resistance and a secret member of the Inner Party who eventually betrays them. These two are characterised as exuberant with Vella as a clownish Charrington and MacQueen’s camp O’Brien generating the majority of laughs with their physical humour. Vella and MacQueen were crowd favourites but with MacQueen perhaps taking one too many liberties with opportunistic ad libbing.
Direction from co-directors McLeod and Vella is clean with distinct attention paid to a balance of hamminess and charm. The addition of the characters’ self-awareness and their frequent breaking of the fourth wall is clever and adds layers to considerations of surveillance and complicity within the text. The production is of high quality with simple set design from Sophie Lanigan and Max Volfneuk involving a trio of stairs and stage cubes and an unencumbered lighting design from Hayden Tonazzi that makes use of flashes and colour without overshadowing the music.
For all its good points of being a well-produced and consistently crafted new musical, the conceit of satirising a satire generates a piece that’s a step too removed from the original to hold substantial weight. While the injection of physical humour and innuendo to a familiar story is able to generate laughs for absurdity’s sake, the overarching point of the production is empty. What is the joke?
As a musical of excessive soppy silliness with a borrowed plot and characters, 1984! The Musical! is a bit of fun but any more serious analysis will leave you unsatisfied.
1984! The Musical! is running at New Theatre from January 8th – 25th