That you could turn 1984 into a seriously comic story is one surprising aspect of the Blind Summit Theatre's premiere production of the Orwell classic at the Battersea Arts Centre. That you could play Charrington and Goldstein with puppets and make that make glorious sense is another. And when you add quite the oddest, but possibly most effective, sex scene you're likely to see on stage in many a year into the mix, then this is a production that delivers the unexpected.
That it also delivers a polished, entertaining, gripping evening is a tribute to director Mark Down, puppet designer Nick Barnes and a fine acting team.
There have been many attempts to stage and film 1984, and few have been successful. Really, this is a book about what goes on in Winston Smith's head - and that's not easy to put on the stage.
The challenge is centrally overcome here by the use of a chorus - which sets the scene and carries the stories, and the thoughts, along. It marches for Hate Day, it dances obediently to Big Brother's tune, it sings patriotic songs, it is the puppet-master - and it never leaves the stage. Even when Julia goes to light a gas flame in Winston's "secret" room, the "flames" are the dancing fingers of a chorus member. And then there's that sex scene - Winston and Julia's first meeting in his "golden country" - in which the chorus manipulates their bodies. It sounds weird, but in fact it is an effective metaphor for the whole story unfolding before us.
Weaving around the framework provided by the chorus are some fine, sophisticated conceits. This is - an old trope but in this case an effective one - a production within a production. We meet the cast on the bus on the way to the BAC, and they explain the staging, and announce each scene.
And there's also a "staging" of Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by means of moving comic book - playing wittily off the current trend towards "comic book" versions of philosophical and political foundational texts.
The puppetry too is entirely self-conscious and upfront. A cardboard thrush in a country wood is pure incongruity, so too a Goldstein of head and hands that pops over a screen, yet both are curiously effective and affecting. And the spookily human-and-yet-not-human movement of Charrington, the junk shop owner who rents Winston a room, is something that will linger in my mind.