Review By Laura Heuston
As someone who spends much of their time internally debating whether Brave New World or 1984 turned out to be the more prophetic, I must admit I was a bit apprehensive upon entering the New Theatre. Both novels are close to my heart, and I have absolutely no interest in a musical that attempts the horror of Orwell’s dystopia and wrecks it. Thankfully, 1984: The Musical is a complete transformation of the novel into a hilarious and light-hearted take on totalitarianism that I predict will age much better than many shows of a similar theme. Congratulations must go to writers Tom Davidson McLeod and Diana Reid who have done an excellent job of staying true to the source material, while establishing a balance with the requirements of the different, much more levitous form.
Winston (Charlie Hollands) has evolved from a violent, misogynist loner to a love-sick, giddy loner, who is no match in force of will for the brainwashed Parsons children (Vivie Brook and Coco Veksner-Shaw), who terrorise him and the audience with their fanatical love of the Party and suspicion of all who seem even slightly less enthused. The girls do an excellent job in their acting, despite moments of pitchiness in their singing, which I’m sure can be put down to opening night nerves. Once out of view of the tiny zealots we get a glimpse into the hilariously lame inner monologue of our new Winston and while you could not say the character really develops throughout, Hollands provides a perfect foundation for the comedy of the show itself.
Anna Della Marta as Julia provides an excellent foil to Winston with her stunning vocals often stealing the spotlight. The common-sense derision that she brings to the character, along with her reluctance to admit her love for the sappy dreamer makes her a far more three-dimensional woman than the Julia in the book. Her solo “Let’s Fuck the Party” is by far the strongest song compositionally (although highly derivative) and she performs it fantastically, jumping between the insinuations of sex and calls to revolution with cheek and jaunt.
However, the two shining stars of this production are without a doubt Joshua MacQueen as O’Brien and Georgia Vella as Charrington. MacQueen makes O’Brien into a melodramatic Winston Churchill character who finally calls out Winston for being obsessed with him and has the audience in stitches from every entry and exit. Both MacQueen and Vella are responsible for the majority of fourth wall breaks in the show, with MacQueen pointing out that the relationship between actor/audience- treat the audience as if it is both there and not there- is the theatrical equivalent of doublethink. I must congratulate writers McLeod and Reid for that one, I was utterly delighted by it.
Vella splits sides with her depiction of the ridiculously terrible spy Charrington, and in her first scene illuminates the absurdity of the fact that Charrington just lets Winston come through and have sex in his shop. The fact that Winston and Julia don’t realise her nefarious motives as member of the Thought Police becomes increasingly ridiculous, as does her moustache disguise, and she provides one of the most satisfyingly comedic through-lines of the show. Vella delivers some of the most terrific jokes in the show, all to brilliant effect. The fact that she is also one of the directors of the show is an absolute testament to the work and dedication she must have put into this production.
I must also give a shoutout to Alex Gonzalez and Jessica Loeb who took the roles of the tap dancing rats. The idea was fantastic, although I wish there was more from the tapping, and these two performers really completed the scene. The context of the show (i.e. the recent release of a cinematic abomination I won’t name, but it rhymes with Rats) meant that I was alarmed during the otherwise amusing scene, as I was vaguely concerned that a gigantean Rebel Wilson would rip off the ceiling and devour them.
The downsides to the production were minor, and easy to fix. The set changes were long and clunky, and at times seemed quite unnecessary when a lighting change could have established a new setting. A lack of scene-change music meant that the audience was sitting and awkwardly watching the scene changes frequently, which disturbed the flow of the story. The second act was improved significantly on this front, and was much shorter, due in part to most of the action taking place in one location. In terms of music, many of the songs were overly repetitive and the use of backing tracks rather than a live band meant that much of the depth and expression of the sound was lost. While I know that it is rather difficult to evenly distribute sound throughout the New Theatre, the microphones that the cast were using seemed superfluous for most of the production and may have contributed to some of the uneven levels.
The writers acknowledge the continued relevance of Orwell’s dystopia in their production and notes, and while (at the moment) I think that Brave New World may have the upper hand in accuracy, 1984 has always been a force to be reckoned with. The constant references back to air quality were of course particularly poignant given the political and literal climate of Sydney at the moment. But the cast and crew of 1984: The Musical have managed to balance political astuteness, faith to the source material and some incredibly funny dialogue to make a wonderful show that I would absolutely recommend.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.