Coming Up For Air: skilled work from Bernard Cuffling

Leslie Mildiner has directed Coming Up For Air for the Kay Meek Centre.

Bernard Cuffling slips effortlessly into the hear of George Bowling in George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air.

A huge part of the reward in Coming Up For Air is the depth that it finds in an ordinary life.

Both George Orwell’s 1938 novel and Leslie Mildiner’s stage adaptation begin with the immortal line: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.” That’s George Bowling speaking. Fat and middle-aged, he lives in the suburbs with his fretful, narrow-shouldered wife Hilda and their two demanding children. Feeling trapped by domesticity and by his work in the insurance business, George describes his neighbourhood on Ellesmere Road as “a line of semi-detached torture chambers.”

Thanks to the book Astrology Applied to Horseracing, George has an unexpected windfall and decides to invest it in reclaiming the joy—and peace—of his Edwardian childhood: arranging to get out of work, and lying to Hilda, he takes a secret holiday in the village he grew up in, Lower Binfield.

You can’t go home again, of course. Or, as George puts it, “Fat men my age don’t go fishing.” This isn’t a new idea, but Orwell mines its enduring resonance. He does so with imagery and phrasing: when George meets an old girlfriend, whose features and vivacity have been eroded by time, he sighs, “The summer nights I had with Elsie…” And he does so by evoking external forces that heighten George’s despair—and ours. George would never have heard the phrase environmental collapse, but, in Lower Binfield, the Thames has been polluted and George’s favourite sylvan getaway has become a rubbish dump. George also dreads WWII, which he knows is coming. How many of us these days are unfamiliar with the overlap of personal and political despair?

Fortunately, George’s wit and Orwell’s affection for his character keep things entertaining. Evoking his unimpressive appearance, for instance, George declares, “I looked like an accountant’s unsuccessful brother.”

Besides, Bernard Cuffling is playing George—and everybody else—in this solo show. I’ve never been so impressed by Cuffling’s skill, probably because I’ve never seen him get so much stage time. His work here is understated and transparent. Without fanfare, with heartbreaking ease in fact, Cuffling inhabits the innocence of George’s eight-year-old self. And he transforms just as easily into an old caretaker who has a face “like a twisted root”, whiny Hilda, a sparkly-eyed eccentric, and a host of other clearly differentiated characters. And he’s completely authentic in George’s yearning, bafflement, joy, and dread.

Mildiner has directed his own adaptation and, to my mind, he has imposed himself too strongly. The set, which was designed by Roy Surette for a production he directed, allows for rear projections, which Mildiner overuses, showing us an unnecessary picture of horses when George talks about horseracing, for instance. Similarly, the cues in Brian Linds’s sound design are abundant and illustrative.

Watching Coming Up For Air, I felt there were longueurs, boring bits when I wanted more from the story. Thinking about it the next day, however, I’m struck by how much of it has stuck with me—and, that, I think, is the more meaningful measure of success.

And then there’s George’s chilling warning about the things that worry us, the things we try to keep at bay in the back of our minds: “It’s all going to happen.”

COMING UP FOR AIR By George Orwell. Adapted and directed by Leslie Mildiner. Presented by Kay Meek with One-O-One Productions. In the Kay Meek Studio Theatre on Thursday, November 16. Continues until November 19.  

Get your tickets here.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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