George Orwell's Coming Up For Air (4 stars)

This article is from 2008.

George Orwell's Coming Up For Air

Funny, tragic stage adaptation of little-known text

What swiftly becomes apparent about this adroit adaptation of George Orwell’s lesser-known 1939 novel is how powerfully it resonates today. Written on the eve of World War II, while the author was in Morocco recovering from an injury sustained fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, it uses the ostensibly mundane story of an everyman going through a mid-life crisis to address much larger issues: fear of a looming conflict and dread of the kind of society it will usher in.

Orwell’s evocative use of language may root Coming Up for Air in the period in which it is set, but his railing against modernity will nevertheless strike a chord with contemporary audiences.

Dominic Cavendish, who, as The Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic is a Fringe veteran in one sense, makes his writing debut at Edinburgh with this piece. He has made a fine job of paring down Orwell’s 240-page novel to a tight 55-minute monologue. It no doubt helped that the book is itself written in the crystal clear, first person voice of George Bowling, an affable, slightly overweight 45-year-old insurance salesman who’s unhappily married with two kids. Still, Cavendish has a sound enough grasp of Orwell to know which parts of the text to retain and what to ditch. And he’s got a terrific performer here in Hal Cruttenden, a dramatic actor familiar from television shows ranging from Eastenders to Kavanagh QC, but better known on the Fringe as a stand-up.
Bowling’s bittersweet, nostalgic yearning for a vanishing England is funny and tragic, but his concern with the country’s faltering economy, the erosion of civil liberties and the increasing shoddiness of everyday life is the meat of the piece. Realising this, Cavendish has cut the book’s humorous climax, to end the show on a resoundingly serious note.

Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, until 25 Aug, 11am, £11.50–£12.50 (£10.50–£11.50)

George Orwell's Coming Up For Air

  • 4 stars

Adroit stage adaptation of Orwell's lesser-known 1939 novel, following a middle-aged man despairing at the failing economy and the erosion of civil liberties. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe'

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