Coming Up for Air

Bernard Cuffling as George Bowling. Credit: Ted Cole

At the Kay Meek Centre (West of 15th on Mathers, West Vancouver) until November 25, 2017
Tickets from $29 at

Posted November 19, 2017

In the late 1930s, George Orwell knew something was going to happen and it was going to be bad. That something was, obviously, WWII.

Coming Up for Air was published in 1939, just before war broke out and bombs started falling on London. Almost eighty years later, we also know something bad is going to happen; it has already started and it’s called climate change: a war between humankind and Planet Earth. The good old days – not all that good, really – begin to look better and better; indulging in nostalgia is like putting on your favourite pjs and pouring yourself a hot cuppa.

Coming Up for Air is all about forty-five-year-old insurance salesman George Bowling, discontent with the present, fearful of the future and caught up in the past. He lives in the suburbs in a “semi-detached torture chamber” with nagging, pinch-faced wife Hilda, who goes on and on about how much things cost. We get the feeling that his kids (“savage little animals”) are a disappointment to him, too. George feels like “a dried up old seed pod.” Fat. Old. Useless.

And then he wins some money on the horses.

“The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth”. He’s going to lie to Hilda about what he’s up to and he’s going to take the train to Lower Binfield where he grew up. Once there, he’s going to revisit a dark, quiet pool full of very large fish that he discovered as a boy but, somehow, never got back to. It will be an adventure in an otherwise dreary life; like a sea turtle long submerged, he’s going to be coming up for air.

But we can never truly go back and neither can George Bowling.

Adapted by director/producer Leslie Mildiner, Coming Up for Air, despite the forewarnings of disaster and George’s disappointment after disappointment, is surprisingly entertaining. That’s all due to Bernard Cuffling, frequently referred to as ‘legendary’. For years, Cuffling has been the go-to actor for bumbling, fuddy-duddy old codger roles and it has been easy to lose sight of his impressive talent for doing anything else. Alone on a tiny stage in the Kay Meek Studio, he completely engages us for two hours. Not for a moment do we doubt when he’s Hilda, her face all scrunched up and probably her hands red from doing the washing up. Or eight-year-old Georgie, tagging along after his big brother Joe. “Happy as a tinker” when he catches a fish with its scales glistening “all the colours of the rainbow.” Cuffling slips into about a dozen characters with the ease of stepping into slippers. He makes it look that easy.

We go on that journey through George’s past but you just know what awaits him. It’s happened to all of us. And if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will.

Cuffling performed the role some years ago in Victoria’s Belfry Theatre and I’m told it’s the very same set: an old English pub, a table, and a chair with projections against the rear wall. It’s a tiny stage in the Kay Meek Studio; you don’t need much to set the stage. When you have a master storyteller like Cuffling, who needs props?

Bernard Cuffling
Credit: Stephen Courtenay

Cuffling brings so much warmth and compassion for poor tubby old George in his knitted vest and bowler hat. Even as George is aware war is coming, he’s caught up – as we all are – in the humdrum day-to-day business of living. Cuffling makes George’s uninteresting life interesting.

George Orwell was a true visionary. His novel, 1984, was prophetic and so is Coming Up for Air. “Everything’s made of something else,” George complains of the two frankfurters he buys for his lunch at The Milk Bar. Today, everything’s still made of something else or, worse, it’s made of “unidentified” or “unknown” fibers. Commercialism, in the name of progress, spreads like a cancer. And just below the level of consciousness, we know something bad is going to happen.

But Cuffling turns Coming Up for Air into a real jewel, making this Room One-O-One production well worth the trip to the North Shore.