Down and Out in Paris and London
Powerful but frustrating exposé of life on the poverty line
This article is from 2015.
Who’d have thought a show about poverty would be so much fun? London-based PIT and New Diorama Theatre’s pacy production melds together two memoirs by middle-class authors sampling life on the poverty line – George Orwell’s 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London and Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work from 2002 – highlighting unsettling similarities between them, and questioning how far we’ve really come in terms of social inclusivity.
Directors David Byrne (who also wrote the show) and Kate Stanley evoke both periods vividly with deft details – Orwell’s bedbug-ridden Parisian garret and ferocious landlady, for example, or Toynbee’s will-sapping waits in Job Centre queues. And the show brings telling clarity to lesser-known aspects of a life on low pay: a scene examining extortionate prices charged at a high-street credit lender is particularly powerful.
But Byrne and Stanley’s slick, energetic production sometimes feels far too cheery for its subject matter. We’re told about the stress, monotony and fatigue of eking out a life on a few pounds a week, but they’re seldom shown. Instead, this often exuberant show sometimes seems to whizz from one joke to the next, leaving little time to engage in much depth with the issues it raises – apart from in some eloquent soliloquies from Toynbee (a focused, considered performance from Carole Street). Richard Delaney’s Orwell is a bluff, well-meaning observer of the hardship around him, but his Parisian associates are little more than amusing caricatures, and it’s hard to feel much empathy for their predicaments. There’s a lot to admire here, but at times it feels frustratingly inconsequential.
Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, until 31 Aug (not 17), 6.30pm, £9.50–£12.50.