Animal Farm

George Orwell, adapted by Sir Peter Hall
Derby Playhouse
(2006)

Production photo: Ben Roberts as Napoleon

There's an old showbiz saying which proclaims you should leave your audience wanting more. This production of Animal Farm, the final play in the current Playhouse season, should certainly leave Derby theatregoers desiring more of the same - although they'll have a long wait for the next play.

Essential maintenance and repairs mean the Playhouse won't open again until December. Some of the people who've seen earlier plays in the Utopia? season might not have bemoaned the extended break because the productions weren't to everyone's taste. But the Playhouse, which at times has been more erratic than the England football team, has served up a top-of-the-table performance with Animal Farm.

Stephen Edwards' production has no gimmicks and doesn't attempt to present Sir Peter Hall's adaptation in a new light.

There's an excellent cast of nine professional actors supported admirably by 27 performers from the local community theatre. All gel incredibly well to present a highly enjoyable piece of theatre in which no one takes star billing - a case of all animal actors are equal.

The tale of Animal Farm - Orwell actually sub-titled it "A Fairy Story" - can be taken at face value or it can reflect what the author regarded as the corruption of the Communist ideal.

Yet in these times when the general public trust estate agents more than politicians and respect for government office has been replaced by self-preservation, Animal Farm speaks to us on yet another level.

Napoleon's right-hand pig Squealer is now not only the dictator's means of putting over propaganda, he's also a modern-day spin doctor with a neat line in persuasion.

The pigs' taking over the farmhouse and living a life of luxury reminded me of the squabbles within the Labour Party over who should have the better grace-and-favour residence. And in the final scene when you can't tell the difference between pigs and humans, a portly Ben Roberts as Napoleon bears more than a passing resemblance to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Roberts gives an outstanding performance. This is his fourth appearance at the Playhouse in three years. Derby should be grateful that Roberts lives on the doorstep. He's such a versatile and dependable actor that he can give below-par productions a reason to watch them - not that Animal Farm falls into that category.

Roberts transforms himself gradually from a team player intent on improving everyone's lot to a scheming, ambitious, irascible dictator with his nose in the trough as often as possible.

There are fine performances too from Lucien MacDougall as the wily Squealer; Dickon Tyrrell as Boxer who movingly resolves to work harder every time something goes wrong; Bethany Sheldon as the conceited, beautiful horse Mollie who won't give up her luxuries; and Neil Savage as the Narrator who resembles a favourite grandfather.

Craig Purnell as Minimus instils a little bit of levity into what is essentially a dark piece when he bursts into song in the second act and playfully pushes other animals out of his way.

Plaudits should also go to designer Kate Unwin, whose set revolves so that farmer Jones's house turns into a windmill, and Kelvin Towse whose musical accompaniment always hits the right note.

Improvements? Napoleon's dogs don't even look canine, nor are they vicious enough. And a handful of the community actors weren't comfortable with the crutches used to give the impression that they had four legs. On the whole, though, movement director Caimin Collins has done wonders, considering she's worked with two teams of 27 who perform on alternate evenings.

This is the second time the Playhouse has collaborated with the community theatre. Three years ago Stephen Edwards directed Oh, What A Lovely War! with similar success. Let's hope it's not another three years before the next collaboration.

"Animal Farm" runs until June 24th

Reviewer: Steve Orme