George Orwell: an all-new cabaret experience

Peter Cordwell explains why he felt moved to turn some of Orwell’s writing into a cabaret-style tribute of recitation, music and song…

There can hardly be a richer subject for musical theatre than George Orwell and his books and essays, plus a wonderfully maverick existence. We never needed to pad out ‘One Georgie Orwell’ for a second or wonder what to put in it. It was more a case of what to leave out – and we have willing substitutes if anything goes awry in 90 minutes. The other easy bit was dialogue. There wouldn’t be any. Who needs chitchat when you’ve got Orwell’s own words and can choose them like cherries on a plate.

The plan comprised a peppery narration, Orwell’s words and a gaggle of original songs – oh, and a bit theatre of involving Jeeves and Wooster to illustrate Orwell’s defence of PG Wodehouse.

How did it all start? Well, my son Alex got the juices flowing when he read and loved ‘Down and Out’ three or four years ago, inspiring me to get back into the great man. I read or re-read all the books again and all the essays, and was just bowled over. I think the fact that we had a particularly smelly bunch of leaders at the time had something to do with it, but Orwell would have grabbed my lapels if Mandela had won Suffolk Coastal.

I had no background in music or theatre, couldn’t play an instrument and was grabbed by the ear at primary school for being tone deaf – but the idea was there. I mentioned it virtually in jest to James Haddrell, executive director of Greenwich Theatre, when I interviewed him for Greenwich Time – ‘Me and My Borough’ – three years ago. That would have been indubitably that, but James said: “Oh, I’m a big fan of Orwell. Give it a go.”

I needed a good start and got one. The first line of the first song came to me almost straight away: ‘His name was Eric Blair/but the likeness stops right there.’

After fiddling about on the narration and cobbling together the “lyrics” to three songs – ‘Southwold Morning’, ‘400 Yards Down’ and ‘Winston and Juliet’ – I badly needed to find a musician/songwriter. An advert on the board at Trinity College of Music in Greenwich bore some strange fruit and it took a complete fluke six months later to find Carl. I didn’t know him but knew someone who did, his father, whom I bumped into outside Sainsbury’s at Lee.

It’s more or less flown from there. Carl dismantled and put the “songs” back together again (not very sadly, ‘Winston and Julia’ was sent to Room 101, never to be seen again), taught me all about syllables in songs and subsequently put tunes to what he called much better efforts – ‘Coming Up for Air’, ‘Gordon Comstock’, ‘Roadsweeper’, ‘Grouchy Marxist’, ‘Boxer’s Blues’ and ‘1984’ (in place of ‘Winston and Julia’).

Box-office bonanza or blowout, it’s been a fantastically enjoyable experience (much helped by Gavin Freeguard at the Orwell Prize and now by a warm welcome from the Orwell Society). Carl and I have taken a ‘Georgie’ workshop at a performance arts class in one of the local sixth form colleges and now the 17 and 18-year-olds will be joining us on stage for choruses and their own ‘Nice Cup of Tea’ singing/dancing section as tramps…

The aim from the start was to spread the word about this amazing human being – spiritual to his roll-ups, in my opinion – in the never-ending struggle for common decency.

‘One Georgie Orwell’, Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, SE10 8ES. April 26-29. Box office 020-8858 775. www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk

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