Review: Animal Farm (touring) Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Animal Farm

Cambridge Arts Theatre

8th February 2022

77 years after the publication of the George Orwell novella, ‘Animal Farm’ has been given a bold an inventive new adaptation in a co-production between the Children’s Theatre Partnership and Birmingham Rep.  Running on a 4-month UK tour, the show opens at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this week.

A political allegory for communism, ‘Animal Farm’ tells the story of the titular inhabitants of Manor Farm, who have grown tired of giving up their lives in service of the alcoholic Mr Jones who owns and runs the farm.  Following a suggestion from the old boar Major, they decide to stage a rebellion and take back the farm for themselves, ousting Jones from the property in a flurry of fur and feathers. With Jones gone, the animals come together to form a new society of their own, setting out ground rules to govern the new fairer way of life for all.  Natural leaders form, and the rebellion appears successful.  However over time, roles change, politics creep in, agendas emerge, and the animals soon realise that their new regime may be no better than before, just in a different guise.

It’s an interesting social tale, the idea that all animals are set out to be equal, but eventually twisted through political machinations into “some are more equal than others”, and in aiming to create a new way of life, the animals inadvertently end up in the same uneven social structure as before, with a power-hungry villain at the top, simply replacing Jones with Napoleon the pig (supposedly Orwell’s depiction of Stalin).  The tale (or should that be ‘tail’?) turns darker and more gripping as Napoleon asserts his rank and subdues (and kills) the weaker animals, all the while becoming more and more human, eventually standing on two legs and wearing human clothes.  It’s a study of what man is capable of, but told through farmyard animals, which makes for a fascinating watch.

The story has been brought to the stage by adaptor and director Robert Icke, and he has created a truly striking piece of theatre.  Lighting (Jon Clark) and Sound (Tom Gibbons) combine brilliantly to convey the growing sense of unease and threat, and Bunny Christie’s set gives the play an efficiently stark and hopeless feel.  Scene changes and dramatic moments are done cleverly, often very simply but in ways that lend the piece a real power and gravitas.

The undisputed stars of this show are the puppets, and the talented performers who bring them to life.  Created by Toby Olie, they are wonderful creations, moving realistically and given very real charisma and personalities.  Somehow they are able to convey emotions in the way a human actor would, but just through the movement of a leg or a head, and they make the audience feel deeply for their fates.  Their dialogue is pre-recorded (voiced by a cast including Robert Glenister and Juliet Stevenson), and the sound synchronises with each puppet’s movements flawlessly.  The cast of puppeteers work exceptionally hard in very physically demanding roles, constantly remaining in character even when they’re not the focus of a scene, and moving around some impressively large puppets.  Their brilliance reaches its peak towards the end of the show in a dramatic scene where tragedy strikes and the animal death toll rises; it’s a masterpiece moment and a perfect combination of movement, sound and lighting.  Imagine ‘Saving Private Ryan’ with ducks and chickens; it’s very tense and ultimately heart-breaking, but brilliantly done.

‘Animal Farm’ may not always be an easy watch (for a show created by a children’s theatre production company, the death count is impressive), but it’s an important one, and it ticks all the boxes; an intriguing story that engages the brain, and a stunning visual feast showing what a piece of theatre can achieve. 

‘Animal Farm’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Friday 12th February, before continuing to tour the UK until the end of May 2022.

Performance run time 90 minutes without interval.

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