George Orwell, adapted by Peter Hall, lyrics by Adrian Mitchell,
music by Richard Peaslee and new musical arrangement by Conor Mitchell
The Peter Hall Company
the egg, Theatre Royal, Bath
It feels spurious to question the modern relevance of Orwell's Animal Farm, particularly since there are parallels to be drawn today in every corner of the globe. Even more so when this revival of Peter Hall's 1984 adaptation for the stage is performed with such energy, spirit and conviction, under the direction of the inimitable Rachel O' Riordan and with the considerable bonus of Conor Mitchell's spectacular new musical arrangement. An awesome cast of actor-musicians, with some breathtaking individual performances, along with an atmospheric set designed by Hayley Grindle, seals the deal on this production.
And yet the evening left me with an uneasy sense that the show's impact will largely depend upon an individual's personal standpoint on what is essentially an unconvincing adaptation of a work of fiction, which was ground-breaking in its day, but has arguably become old-hat in the twenty-first century.
Nevertheless, one hopes that a production of this calibre should stand for itself. True, in places the script is text-heavy; rhetoric and polemic led; in one or two scenes (most notably in Boxer's laboured attempts to educate himself in Act One), much of the subtlety of the novel is lost to heavy-handed writing. But O'Riordan's skilful direction, along with Conor Mitchell's dazzling musical influence, is surely enough to overcome these reservations.
Most striking are Rebecca Jackson as Mollie, ("the pretty white mare") and Steve Hansell as Boxer, who provide two of the most affecting and poignant moments of the production. Napoleon is powerfully played by Stephen Casey, the solar plexus of the piece, although there were moments in the second act when he left me wanting for a more measured, cerebral characterisation. The young narrator (Jack Lawrence) was faultless and the Musical Director himself remained on stage throughout, playing the consummate cat, with mesmerising and contorted feline piano-playing, tucked away on his raised platform.
Worthy of mention too are Sarah Groarke's robust performance as Clover; Neil Salvage's charismatic Benjamin, the old donkey, and Tony Flynn's poised and commanding Squealer. Claire Storey is an evocative Muriel, with her clipped 1940s accents and all the blind allegiance of a patriot in wartime. Matthew Woodyatt is an earnest and cerebral Snowball and Claude Close gives an authoritative performance, both as Old Major and as Moses, his gloriously resonant voice setting the tone for the piece.
Animal Farm is a story that no longer entirely convinces me, but this is nevertheless a production with vitality and integrity, which transforms an ailing text into a piece of compelling theatre.
"Animal Farm" runs at the egg Theatre, Bath Theatre Royal until Saturday 21st July, 2007