Review: Brave New World, Royal and Derngate

“Everyone belongs to everyone else”

Depictions of dystopian near-future worlds are two-a-penny these days so what makes Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World so striking is that it was written in 1932. Its foretelling of a society dominated by technology, loveless sex and capitalist greed has obvious resonance today and so it makes sense for a stage adaptation, co-produced by Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and The Touring Consortium Theatre Company. Dawn King, she of the excellent Foxfinder, discreetly reshapes the narrative to its new form but doesn’t actually interfere too much with the source material.

Creatively, director James Dacre has gathered an excellent team around him who deliver great results in Naomi Dawson’s impressive retro-futuristic design Original music by These New Puritans mixes with George Dennis’ icy sound design to provide a vivid soundscape, and Colin Grenfell’s lighting complements Keith Skretch’s video work to create a strong visual aesthetic that probably errs to high-end contemporary rather than all-out futuristic, its targeted advertisements, corporate shininess and civil liberties-impinging data collection already a reality. 

And recognisable as elements of this world are, there’s paths we haven’t (yet) taken. All governments have merged into one world state and a genetically engineered class system has been imposed to create stability for all, free from familiy, religion and war but also from emotion and art. A nifty beginning sees the audience take the role of new recruits to the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre which allows for exposition aplenty to set the scene but we soon slide into the story proper as those who consider this ersatz stability to be more like stagnation begin to rock the boat.

Though a member of the top Alpha class, Gruffydd Glyn’s Bernard is considered defective and his increasing discomfort and displacement leads him to uncover deeper truths about society. Glyn portrays the awkwardness of the misfit extremely well but is particularly good when he tries to fit in as an Alpha, longing for the acceptance that will never come. William Postlethwaite’s charismatic and erudite John is a strong counterpart and he pulls Beta scientist Lenina, a spiky Olivia Morgan, along a brave new path but as she discovers love for the first time, he is newly experiencing the pain of existence. 

Sophie Ward’s Margaret Mond, the wonderfully haughty Controller, has a properly chilling froideur about her that really works. The zeal with which she pursues this new world order is flintily fierce but secured in the knowledge of what is being kept from society at large. This makes her a more effective villain per se than James Howard’s Director, whose initial authority is gradually whittled away as he comes to realise just how much of a pawn he actually is.

This lack of a sense of threat is felt more keenly in the second act which doesn’t quite have the driving propulsion of the first, the broad image of this society is brilliantly but the story itself doesn’t always carry the dramatic heft to fully engage our attention. As it is, the show hits sufficient depths intermittently but still powerfully – John’s agonising vigil at his mother’s deathbed, the fixed grin unable to mask Lenina’s desperation as business continues as usual at the show’s end. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th September and then touring to Edinburgh King’s Theatre; Oxford Playhouse; Nottingham Theatre Royal; Cheltenham Everyman Theatre; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre; Darlington Civic Theatre; Blackpool Grand Theatre; and Bradford Alhambra Theatre

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