Monday 5 December 2016

Rough and ready: George Orwell and the Irish tramps

Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30

Orwellian times: Pheilim Drew in 'Down and Out in Paris and London'
Orwellian times: Pheilim Drew in 'Down and Out in Paris and London'

George Orwell befriended two Irish men when he was down and out in London. A nameless "wizened old Irishman, obviously a tramp" and "Paddy". He followed them around. He tramped with them. They took him to the best "spikes" (homeless shelters) and the churches where penitent tramps could get a free bun and tea. They showed him how to find free tobacco in cigarette ends on the pavements.

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The fruit of their dire wanderings was Orwell's second novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1936. Eighty years later it's back, with another Irishman taking George Orwell on tour, theatrically speaking.

Phelim Drew - whose great talent denies us the temptation to add the words "Ronnie Drew's son" after his name, though he is that - has a one-man show. Down and Out in Paris and London is a highlight at the Galway Theatre Festival starting this May bank holiday weekend. Drew adapted the novel, cutting down and crafting the prose as a 'Show in a Bag' that's been touring little theatres since. "Is it any good?" I asked a friend. "It's perfect", he said. "It's just George Orwell."

Down and Out is one of those extraordinary books you wolf down until there's none left.

The story is about how poverty, surviving on a bread and margarine diet that "cheats hunger" and kills the spirit, slides into homelessness.

Did any of the events in the book happen in real life? George Orwell said they all did, but not in the order written. Orwell (1903-1950) was educated at Eton College and spent five years in Burma with the Imperial Police Force. Aged 24 he gave up his salary and came back to London to become a writer.

He sent himself on a series of undercover investigations in the East End, dressing like a tramp and living among the destitute. He moved to Paris. There, he found himself in genuine squalor, in "inveterately dirty" hotels on streets of "leprous houses", slaving away as a plongeur (dishwasher) in "verminous" kitchens.

His reports have the fastidiousness of an Eton boy, who finds things "horrid", "vile", "rather disgusting", "truly appalling", "beastly". It means we feel extra sorry for him. He meets the Irish tramps in London when it's all got very ugly. On Paddy's dishevelled coattails he comes across assorted outcasts; from Bozo, the crippled pavement artist who hates charity and cherishes his freedom of thought, to the two foreign gentlemen in rags playing chess verbally because they can't pull together enough to buy a chessboard.

Phelim Drew plays all these parts. The actor has a tall and fearsome presence but he's softly spoken on the phone from The Liberties, where he lives with his comedian wife Sue Collins, and four young children. He came to Orwell as a teen, starting with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When he read Down and Out, it struck him that this grim account was also hugely entertaining.

"I love his unflinching honesty in the face of the powers that be. He's got a lot of humanity.

''He gives people dignity where in other situations they might be seen as the dregs of society. He gives them voice."

In this first attempt adapting for stage, Drew found fun in the darkest depths. "The book is very evocative of that inter-war period in Paris. There's a joie de vivre even though they're on their hands and knees, scraping by. There's a romanticism, and I hope the show is evocative of this time."

Unfortunately, it's evocative of now also. Orwell is deeply relevant, says Drew.

"Things have changed - the social welfare system, a lot more charities.

''But you don't have to go very far in Dublin City before you're stepping over people on the streets." He talks about housing repossessions, water charges, a lost Republic.

"I would be very interested to hear what Orwell would have to say about this. I think he would be appalled." And he draws back. He's an artist after all.

"I'm not a particularly political person. I'd be more socially aware. One's political opinion is quite personal. I express my politics through the work that I do."

Down and Out in Paris and London is on May 6 and 7 in An Taibhdhearc, Galway, see galwaytheatrefestival.com

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