by George Orwell
adapted by Leslie Mildiner
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
March 8-12

In Coming Up for Air Bernard Cuffling plays George “Fatty” Bowling, the dyspeptic middle-aged narrator of George Orwell’s 1939 novel, adapted for the stage by Leslie Mildiner who also directs the show. The year is 1938 and George, an insurance adjuster with a nagging wife and two kids he dislikes, is taking a few days to get away from it all—especially from his home on Ellesmere Road, “a line of semi-detached torture chambers”—and enjoy some freedom. But that’s easier said than done, because in George’s eyes all of England, all of modern life, is debased, sordid, conformist, pathetic, disappointing. And the bombers flying overhead at regular intervals remind him of the apocalyptic war that’s coming, which can only make things worse.

On a whim he heads for Lower Binfield, the village of his pre-Great War childhood, which he remembers as idyllic. Predictably, he find Paradise Lost: the fishing hole turned into a garbage pit, the manor house into a mental asylum. Poor George. He’s had these intimations that it’s possible to come up for air out of the stifling squalor of modern life. But after all, he discovers, “there isn’t any air.” Does it get any more pessimistic than that?

Mildiner’s script and Cuffling’s performance play down Orwell’s extreme bitterness and play up the comedy: the absurdity of a world gone down the tubes and the ridiculous people who inhabit it. Cuffling is a warm comic actor, and he makes George almost likeable despite his bitching about everything. He’s also a master of the instant English caricature, creating definitive comic character types with body language, a scrunched face, a raised eyebrow, and an apparently unlimited supply of different accents.

But the script is awfully repetitious—with every incident hope springs eternal, as does the inevitable disappointment that follows. The play should really be only one act since nothing different happens after intermission than before. And the period misogyny, of a man weighed down by a miserable wife he thinks he’s too good for, becomes painful after a while.

The set, for which no one is credited, is a tiny platform stage which serves as a pub and every other location. Cuffling seems cramped in the space and uncomfortable with the possibility of tumbling off the edge. Its back wall serves as a projection screen for period photos which provide effective ambience with the help of Rebekah Johnson’s lighting and Stephen Courtenay’s sound.

We see projected not only the bombers but the ruins of England during the coming war, which George vividly foresees. It’s not a pretty picture, and for George Bowling/Orwell it would only get worse. Coming up for air after the new war, he’d write Animal Farm and 1984.

Jerry Wasserman


last updated: Thursday, March 10, 2005 4:24 PM
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