Critical acclaim has followed Headlong Theatre’s touring production of 1984, so any reviewer would go in already aware it would be quite good; however, this show turns out to be one of the most visceral, disturbing and deeply imaginative stage works an audience could experience.

Headlong’s other recent productions include West End political thriller Chimerica, and they are the company behind getting ex-Dr Who Matt Smith to sign up for a new stage play of American Psycho, so their stock is high at the moment – and they prove this is not without good reason, although maybe not the go-to guys for the lulz. This 1984 is a co-production with the Nottingham Playhouse.

To give away too much would doubtless diminish the impact of the TKO this production packs; but to say that whether or not you know what fate has in store for Winston Smith, the tension is almost physically unbearable.

A liberty taken by Robert Ike and Duncan MacMillan with this adaptation was to weave the opening and ending of the play into a setting 100 years later, with academics debating the significance of Winston’s diary, that has somehow survived as an historical relic. With that came the inevitable parallels with present day – the show’s publicity made mention of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and the like – without being too heavy-handed with it. As if there wasn’t quite enough to think about.

Winston Smith is living in (he thinks, but can’t be sure) 1984; in a country ruled by Big Brother, in which dissention from the party is a crime. When he meets and falls in love with like-mind Julia, he risks everything to break away from the control of the party. Keeping the diary alone would be punishable by death – or worse.

The production artfully lulls the audience into a false sense of security as the love story unfolds and Winston and Julia away to their secret hide out, making what comes next all the more shocking.

And shock this production most certainly does. The audience cannot remain passive, at least in the stalls – there were more recoils, gasps and hands over faces than I ever saw during the Playhouse’s internationally performed horror show Ghost Stories. And while it never breaks the fourth wall (or does it?) the viewer is sucked into, even trapped in its nightmarish confusion.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to stage Orwell’s tale of psychological terror without all the whistles and bells – Liverpool community company Tell Tale Theatre did a fantastic adaptation a few years back at the Kazimier, on a shoestring – but it is the scope of Headlong’s production; the imagination, the surreal landscape it creates, that pummels the audience into submission.

This 1984 is huge; loud, sometimes gory, a little sexy, and thoroughly overwhelming. As Winston, Mark Arends (a familiar face on the Everyman and Playhouse stages) offers up yet another unforgettable performance; Tim Dutton as O’Brien is brilliant as the authority figure Winston comes to trust.

At the moment, punters are playing $250 to watch Daniel Craig on Broadway in a Pinter play that hasn’t impressed the critics. When you can see something this incredibly good on your doorstep for (relatively) a few quid, it can only be a reminder of the incredible theatre the regions can produce.

Liverpool Playhouse
Until 2 November

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