Inspired by George Orwell’s novel of the same name, 1984! is an impressive cross-genre piece of musical theatre. The musical is an entirely original work written and composed by students. Its two acts successfully blend political satire, existentialist commentary, black humour, and tragicomedy in a rousing testament to the talents of its cast and crew. One can only hope that this remarkable production can reach more audiences in the future through a larger, professional run.
The musical begins with the cast performing The Party Never Ends — a number I can only describe as a hyper-nationalist, psychopathic cheerleading routine. The cast perform rotating solos and duets to immerse the audience in their characters’ lives and society. A duet by two uniformed grinning schoolgirls (Danielle Stephenson, Sophie Roderick) best sets the tone for the musical. The audience is pulled out of their comfort zone with jarring, absurdist lyrics, like ‘Eurasians aren’t invited/we hope they get killed and die.’
The plot structure is reminiscent of famous existential and absurdist plays like Waiting for Godot. The musical’s overarching plot follows the absurd attempts of Winston (Harry Charlesworth) to find himself, whilst living in a surveillance state where nobody can be trusted and anybody might report you for bad behaviour. Many distinct but overlapping subplots interrupt the main story through abrupt and unexpected scene transitions, allowing the audience to share in the building sense of chaos and confusion being experienced by the characters. The flow between scenes is nevertheless effective, a credit to a versatile crew that is able to pull off frequent, complex set changes within seconds.
In one subplot, Winston rebels against the government and the loveless marriage into which he has been forced by a societal duty to procreate. He has an affair with the far more charming and intelligent Julia (Anna Della Marta), with whom he plots political rebellion. Charlesworth does his best comedic work in scenes about, or with, Della Marta, such as his hilarious solo diarising of his internal ‘she loves me, she hates me!’ monologue. Della Marta delivers an incredible performance as a woman who grows exhausted of having to deal with Winston’s toxic masculinity in a sexist society that leaves her no better options. Her confident yet emotive vocal performances are the standout of the show. Fellow lovers of wordplay will appreciate her solo number that satirically turns aspects of authoritarianism into traits that an exasperated and sexually-frustrated Julia wishes Winston would display — a favourite line being, “I need to give you head… strong leadership.”
Another subplot follows a family preparing for the upcoming ‘Hate Week’ festivities. Stephenson and Roderick’s two schoolgirl characters epitomise perfectly the tragicomedy of life without individual thought — remaining relentlessly innocent and smiling whilst singing gaily about their love of racism and bloodlust for dissenters.
The third subplot interweaves with the first as we see attempted rebellion end in torture, pain, and failure due to inescapable state surveillance. O’Brien (Josh Macqueen) and Charrington (Sasha Meaney) — agents of the State who surveil Winston and Julia — are the comic standouts of the musical. They deliver their best performances together in a burlesque-inspired number that glamorises scenes of Winston and Julia’s psychological torture.
The musical ends with the cast taking black comedy to a new level with their repeat of The Party Never Ends. The crowd is in hysterics as Mr Parsons (Jock Price) deftly puppeteers Winston’s battered corpse so he can still dutifully dance to the state’s success. Though the triumph of the state should feel like a letdown, it’s hard to believe dystopia is all that bad when this musical makes it so entertaining.
1984 is an incredibly impressive musical that its executive, cast and crew should be deeply proud of. It is one of the best musicals I have ever seen, and I will certainly be first in line for tickets when the show hopefully has another bigger run.