Down and Out in Paris and London is a brilliant specimen from a disreputable branch of writing: the chav safari, the underclass minibreak, the sojourn on the scrapheap that inspires a literary monument. Orwell’s first book was turned down by Faber boss T.S. Eliot, who received the script under its original title, Confessions of a Dishwasher. New Diorama’s dramatisation brilliantly captures the raffish sleaziness of Paris in the 1920s. Orwell’s crew of thieves, parasites and drifters come across as comradely and charming in this magnificently squalid setting. The austere lighting and the ingenious stage effects are done with tremendous economy. There are flashes of bleak humour too. Orwell’s anvil-faced landlady dismisses his complaints about bedbugs claiming that the insects’ choice of habitat proves the desirability of her establishment.
The show takes a strange turn when it moves to London. Orwell’s testimony is dropped and instead we’re treated to an adaptation of Polly Toynbee’s memoir Hard Work, which chronicles her time living as a jobseeker in the capital. In the play Toynbee stages her proletarian stunt in Tower Hamlets (my current patch), whose council likes to exaggerate its penury in order to win larger grants from Whitehall. Tower Hamlets is pretty affluent, and conspicuously so in many neighbourhoods, but Toynbee seems convinced she’s entering a pit of crime, disease and starvation. Having thrown herself on the mercy of her beloved welfare state, she immediately starts to criticise the calibre of its hospitality. She’s miffed that her free council flat hasn’t been furnished in advance of her arrival. Offered a loan to buy some basic amenities, she’s appalled at the meagreness of the décor budget: £300. She’s summoned to a job interview in Holloway, three miles away, but struggles to find the bus fare from her dole money. Walking appears not to be a Toynbee pastime. Her great pleb adventure momentarily threatens her health when she muddles her finances and has to skip food for an entire day. Worse follows when she goes to Ealing for an office job and is informed that the interviewer isn’t available to greet her. Offers of employment are plentiful but she finds insults lurking among the good news. She’s asked to confirm her willingness to work more than 48 hours a week and she dismisses the request as an intolerable affront to her dignity.
What’s entertaining about all this is that Toynbee is blissfully unaware of the contradictions inherent in her side-project. Experiencing joblessness by pretending to be jobless is like experiencing drowning by pretending to be wet. She accepts work in the NHS where she stumbles across two scandals. First, hospital bosses pay themselves 70 times as much as they do hospital porters. Secondly, sloth is officially encouraged by the system. Ease your pace, a nurse warns her, or you’ll make the rest of us look bad. These facts are recorded baldly and without further comment by Toynbee, who sees no causal link between the lethargy of the NHS foot soldiers and the bloated salaries of their overlords. Her only concern is to find evidence for her thesis that citizens are owed an eternal debt by the state, and that any setback or discomfort suffered by anyone increases the obligations on the public sector. Since Orwell’s time things have improved to the point where destitution exists only in isolated pockets. For the poor, it’s an ordeal to be borne courageously. And for poverty activists it’s a job for life.
My Mother Said I Never Should, written in 1985 by Charlotte Keatley, has the status of a minor classic. It follows the lives of four women over six decades and the key event is the illegitimate birth of Rosie in the early 1970s. Her mum Jackie can’t cope so Jackie’s mother steps in and raises Rosie as her own. Jackie becomes Rosie’s ‘big sister’. Quite why this imposture has to be maintained for years isn’t entirely clear but the concealment is arranged by women acting entirely on their own authority. Men are absent from this play. So is any hint that men bear responsibility for the guilt and shame that surrounded sexuality during most of the 20th century.
Not everything in Paul Robinson’s version is perfect. The off-white staging is serviceable rather than inspiring. Scattered TV screens relay clips of old news footage to keep us up to date with the ever-changing timeline. The jumpy chronology, according to the author, represents a daring break with convention but I’d just call it a bit muddled. The great selling point is Maureen Lipman’s entertaining stoicism as the family matriarch. She reflects on her averagely miserable marriage with a flicker of wintry disdain and when she reveals that this thrill-free partnership lasted ‘61 years’ the house erupts with shocked laughter. The play’s closing scenes are undoubtedly moving but this is primarily a chick-flick evening. Not one for the gents.