Animal Farm

George Orwell adapted by Robert Icke
Children's Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

Rayo Patel (Cockerel) - Animal Farm Credit: Manuel Harlen
Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matt Churcher) and Clover (puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson) Credit: Manuel Harlen
Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Gray, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel) and Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matt Churcher) Credit: Manuel Harlen

George Orwell’s 1945 polemic on the nature of man and the failures of communism; a bleak and brutal lesson of revolution, commerce and spin doctoring; the rise and fall of hope of freedom from slavery, and a barnyard full of life-size puppetry from Tony Olié (Running Wild / Little Shop Of Horrors) poses a bit of a problem.

Although the fliers were quite specific with their age guide, there were rather too many too young children in the audience who probably arrived expecting the Children’s Theatre Partnership’s production to feature spectacular puppets and a charming tale of animal derring-do but left somewhat traumatised by the death toll, not very happy ending and few farmyard frolics. Even as the auditorium fills, Farmer Jones hefts pig carcasses across the stage with bloodied hands and apron, and we relish his comeuppance as he is rather more animal abuser—with kicks, slaps and deliberate underfeeding—than Orwell’s drunk.

According to democratic socialist Orwell, his satirical novella reflects events leading up to the revolution and the Stalinist era of communist Russia ultimately sliding into totalitarianism but, jammed into an unbroken 90 minutes, characters are axed and the story truncated.

Naive Boxer epitomises the proletariat believing hard work is the answer to all ills, sacrificing himself to the cause, but also not understanding his power—representing the possibility of challenging authority when he defeats the dogs sent to punish him for questioning Snowball’s purported treason—while frivolous Molly swiftly deserts the harsh reality of post-revolution farm life for ribbons and sugar lumps so representing the monied classes unwilling to be equal in a communist state.

It’s Toby Olié’s life-size animal puppets who are the real draw in a rather stuttering, episodic piece that lacks time to build engagement with the characters whose demise is therefore not as gut-wrenching as might be hoped. And the death toll is high, with each fallen comrade named and noted in surtitles.

The voices are recorded—with the likes of Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply / Bend It Like Beckham) and Robert Glenister (Hustle / Spooks) on board—which calls for tremendous precision timing from the 14-strong cast (puppeteers all save for the occasional appearance of various farmers which injects fear and action into an otherwise emotionally flat and stilted piece) but is unhelpful in believing in the protagonists or creating a palpable bond with the animals.

And, unfortunately, as endearing as the various birds, sheep and cat are, for the most part, the puppets do not live up to the pedigree set by War Horse / Running Wild.

The stalwart secret weapon Boxer is rather plastic—no twitching of withers here—and gentle Clover (here portrayed as a cow) is quite wooden, but the plethora of fluttering birds—from chatty Barbara to murdered Beverley to hissing geese and tatty crows—ruffle their feathers and strut beautifully and provide much needed light-hearted or comic relief here and there... before being starved to death for refusing to give up their children to be eaten, or being shot or having their necks broken.

The pigs are grotesque with huge heads and with their back legs and tails puppeteers as Old Major’s throat is slit; Snowball’s history is rewritten from hero to traitor, blamed for all that is not quite going to plan; Squeela, the slick spin doctor extraordinaire, explains away the revised and ever-reducing original eight commandments while Napoleon is more grotesque by the moment as weekly meetings give way to committees, equality gives way to porcine elitism and he becomes ever more upright, drinking, making deals and selling out his comrades for comfort and his dynasty.

Multi-award-winning designer Bunnie Christie (The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time / Company) creates a bare, industrial set with corrugated metal, wooden barn doors and industrial gantries. Miniature houses and farms are held aloft for the occasional chase scene, while two headlights in the dark are sufficient for the invading forces breaching the south gate. All terribly and fittingly dark and dismal.

So many elements to commend but, as a composite piece, disappointingly unengaging.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell

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