'Don't you like feeling, don't you like living, don't you like this?' SUSU Theatre Group's 1984 mirrored exactly that, making this production unmissable.
SUSU Theatre Group take to the Annex Theatre once more this week, showcasing a piece far from their previous venture in the Nuffield. The cast and production team present George Orwell’s classic remarkably, allowing the slightly dismantled aspects of the piece to be overlooked.
The focus begins with the cast stylistically working as one, with faultless use of physical theatre. My only question would be to ask why this isn’t repeated later on, as it is obviously effective and gives the strong and well-deserved impact needed from the start. The established actors of Theatre Group mix in well with some new faces and work well as a company.
The technical aspects of the production are exceptional and present a perfect example as to what can be achieved in the Annex. The television screens and back wall projection, albeit distracting at times, add the necessary tension, especially when the live clips are shown. What lets the television screens down though, was that it is unclear whether the World War Two images shown are linked with the past or the present narrative, and this disrupts the storyline ever so slightly. More could be done with the set, although obviously it is intended to be minimalistic to tie in with the aesthetic of the production. On a side note, the simplicity of the white sheet coming down in Act Two is genius.
Mike Cottrell gives a near perfect performance as Winston. It is believable, consistent and powerful. The torture scenes could have been a weak point but Cottrell gives them the sensitivity they need. I was impressed by how he keeps his energy up throughout, conscious that the moment it dropped, we would lose all belief of the events in the later scenes. Cottrell is clearly a force to be reckoned with and quite rightly deserves the praise he will get this week. Opposite him, Sally White gives a convincing and mesmerising performance as the fearless Julia. She captures the sexuality and integrity needed for the rebellious character. Her sultry tones lure not only Winston, but the audience, and she is a joy to watch. In turn, the pair bounce off each other and play up just the right amount of chemistry.
It is a shame in some scenes that ensemble tend to upstage the two protagonists, from a lack of mastering the art of the stage whisper. It detracts the attention from some of the most vital scenes and sometimes breaks the all-important tension that the production obviously needs. There are certainly some weaker performances amongst the sea of actors.
The stand out performance for me though, has to be Oliver Bray. Bray owns the stage and captivates the audience accordingly, delving us into his deceitful and lurid mind. Act Two, as long as it was, featured a white sheet and Cottrell and Bray: nothing elaborate, only the use of distinctive acting ability to hold the act together. And they do it, with nothing short of perfect performances. We don’t need the ensemble or the flashing TV screens in this scene; the pair show just how successful a production can be using the old-fashioned skill of word and movement (and several blood curdling torture scenes).
Although there are inconsistencies in terms of spectacle, such as some tension-breaking scene changes, this is overcome by some flawless acting skill. Special mention must go out to Ellie Joyce as Syme, who gives a wonderfully refreshing performance. Also, Will Cook (as Parsons) and Peter Ward (as Old Prole) give comic relief to the dark themes within the piece, both showing confidence and clarity in their respective characters.
My biggest criticism is how hard the storyline is to follow, whether this is a flaw in the script or a flaw in the direction, I found it hard sometimes to distinguish between the present and the past as far too many special effects are happening at once. For example, the scene where Winston hits Julia over the head was only realisable as a mental image when it is explained later on. I also felt the scenes with Winston’s Mother (Hayley Baskerville) and the Prostitute (Olivia Watters) hard to apply myself to; sometimes I questioned whether I was watching a flashback or the present action.
Overall, SUSU Theatre Group pulled off a fantastic piece and credit must go out to the production team. I certainly couldn’t get the play out of my head when I left and shall remain emotionally drained – but that’s a good thing.