Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Animal Farm

George Orwell, adapted for the stage by Ian Wooldridge
NORTH 2016, Northern Stage
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Craig Fairbairn and William Wyn Davies Credit: Topher McGrillis
Katherine Pierce and Millie Harris Credit: Topher McGrillis
Dale Jewitt as Moses the Raven Credit: Topher McGrillis

NORTH 2016 is a small ensemble of emerging actors from the region working on a 16-week development programme under the direction of Northern Stage’s Associate Director Mark Calvert.

There are five in the company, three men and two women. For this production, the assistant director is Maria Crocker and the musical director Alice Blundell, both of whom were members of the first NORTH company in 2013.

Animal Farm is a testing piece for a company’s first production for it’s one of those stories which most people at least know something about, it’s very political and it has a large cast of characters.

The problem with it being so well-known is that it’s difficult to find a new approach whilst remaining faithful to Orwell’s story. Ian Wooldridge’s version does omit quite a few characters and events (thus keeping the piece to a reasonable length by telescoping the time-scale). He uses Orwell’s words but the transitions from scene to scene can be quite abrupt and the company must find a way of smoothing what could be quite jarring jumps.

What Calvert and his cast have done is make use of music and of physical theatre techniques. All the company members either play instruments or sing (or both) and music as underscore, accompaniment or integrated song (as in the singing of “Beasts of England” or the raven Moses’ celebration of Sugarcandy Mountain) becomes an important ingredient, not just as linkage but as a means of reinforcing or changing mood.

The physical theatre is clever; what seems, for a considerable time, to be the pointless moving of items from one place to another, representing, one might have thought, the repetitive nature of their work, proves to have much greater significance in the development of the plot and very effective use is made of shadow play.

Between them, the cast of five—Dale Jewitt, Craig Fairbairn, Millie Harris, Katherine Pierce and William Wyn Davies—play a large number of characters, mainly Major, Boxer, Napoleon, Snowball, Squealer, Mollie, Benjamin and Moses, although others do make an appearance—and they differentiate them by the occasional small costume change but mainly by body language.

What comes across very clearly is the relevance of Animal Farm to 2016: it was difficult to listen to Major’s speech at the beginning without thinking how little has changed, but, as the rest of the play so clearly shows, revolution can so quickly turn into Stalinism. I cannot but admire the cleverness of Orwell’s parable but I also cannot help but be depressed by the depths of its pessimism about human nature. Or perhaps it’s just realism…

It is to the credit of these young actors and the creative team that they have found a different, imaginative and rather edgy way of presenting a well-worn tale. It’s now off on a tour of schools in the region, where it should capture the imagination of its audiences, before its final performance at Alnwick Playhouse on 23 March.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan