In his words: Director Jimmy Walters on Mrs Orwell

Director Jimmy Walters on how he came to bring Mrs Orwell, the story of George Orwell and the woman to whom he proposed during his final days, to the stage.

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This summer, actress Cressida Bonas plays a woman whose love life might well be more intriguing than her own. Bonas’s past relationship may have been tabloid fodder, but Mrs Orwell, or Sonia Brownell as she was, has her own high profile relationship. She receives a proposal from the writer of 1984 as his health deteriorates in 1949. Should she hold on for true love or marry one of the greatest authors in the world to help him write the novels he believes he has left within him?

Director Jimmy Walters tells us more:

Cressida Bonas and Edmund Digby Jones in rehearsal for Mrs Orwell
Cressida Bonas and Edmund Digby Jones in rehearsal for Mrs Orwell

“I’d just finished directing Tony Harrison’s The Trackers Of Oxyrhynchus at Finborough Theatre. The temptation at this point is always to put your feet up and have a breather. Actually, there couldn’t be a more important time for a director or theatre company to look for the next project. People forget about you very quickly in this industry. The short, sudden success of a production is matched with the very quick door slam after it finishes. People are looking at the next show that follows yours.

“We were lucky in that after Trackers, we started receiving scripts. The idea was that Proud Haddock [the production company co-founded by Walters and James Ahearne] was not going to move into new writing territory. We were just going to focus on unknown stories from classical writers. But then I read Mrs Orwell.

“I’d struck up a close friendship with John Osborne’s agent, Gordon Dickerson. He sent me this script, mentioned that it was written by a playwright called Tony Cox and asked if we would be interested in producing it.

“I read it and immediately called my business partner, James. I told him that I thought I’d just stumbled upon a future masterpiece and we had been offered the chance to stage its world premiere.

“James read it and was buzzing with excitement. He telephoned back saying, ‘We have, have, HAVE to produce this. We can’t let anyone else have this. We will start a new writing strand of the company just for us to unveil this.’

Cressida Bonas, Edmund Digby Jones and Jimmy Walters in rehearsal for Mrs Orwell
Cressida Bonas, Edmund Digby Jones and Jimmy Walters in rehearsal for Mrs Orwell

“I contacted the Old Red Lion Theatre where we had a lovely time two years ago with A Naughty Night With Noel Coward. Its new Artistic Director, Clive Judd, was equally as excited and said they would love to stage this story.

“Everything fell into place off the back of the script. Despite the very British backdrop, this story and the characters that inhabit it are universal. We are dealing with a lot of heart. I’ve always wanted to tackle a piece that has the ability to take you from laughter to tears. The combination of Tony’s writing and Jeremy Warmsley’s wonderful score does just that.

“All five of the cast have been great fun to work with. As a package they really do make a terrific company both onstage and off.

“One question I always ask myself of a play is whether it will resonate with an audience in the here and now. As a story, it sits very strongly in 1949, but Orwell and the Orwellian ideology could not be more relevant today. It excites me that after watching this wonderful story, audiences will be interested in finding out what happened after he died and how the success of 1984 impacted the world we live in.

“I hope people will feel inspired enough to reread that wonderful book as our story is really just a prequel for the world we live in today.”

Mrs Orwell runs at Old Red Lion Theatre from 1 to 26 August.