Adapted from George Orwell’s memoir of Parisian poverty in the 1920s and Polly Toynbee’s book about minimum wage jobs 90 years later, David Byrne’s script and production aim to show how little has changed in the lives of the barely-employed.
But so different are the two writers on whom he has drawn that the actual effect makes Toynbee’s experience seem like the trivial and mildly offensive playing at poverty of a safely middle class tourist, while Orwell’s real experience and superior writing are all the more impressive through the contrast.
The mode of the play is to flow smoothly back and forth, the actors sometimes passing each other onstage, between Orwell’s days of starvation punctuated by occasional backbreaking labour for a very few francs a day, with Toynbee’s visits to housing offices, job centres and minimum wage jobs, her most recurring complaint the annoyance and cost of having to travel across town on the tube.
Granted that both writers always knew they had the escape hatch of return to their real lives, Orwell’s power as a writer and Richard Delaney’s performance convince us that the man is changed and deepened by his painful introduction to poverty, while Carole Street is unable to show Toynbee affected in any way at all by her adventure.
A protean and smoothly directed cast play Everyone Else in instant characterisations and, when appropriate, caricatures.