Review: Animal Farm (touring) Nottingham Theatre Royal

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Adapted and directed by Robert Icke

Set and Costume Design – Bunny Christie

Puppet Designer and Director – Toby Olié

Nottingham Theatre Royal – Touring

Tuesday 5th April – Saturday 9th April 2022

If you mention the words Animal Farm to members of a particular generation, then they will almost certainly associate them with English Literature GCSE or ‘O’ Level. A stalwart of the curriculum, many will know Orwell’s fable, wherein the animals of Manor Farm decide to stage a rebellion against the cruel and drunken farmer, Mr. Jones, and create what they hope will be a brand-new egalitarian society.

This touring production, adapted and directed by Robert Icke, is a bold, dynamic reinvention of Orwell’s political satire. I know the novella very well, but this welcome addition brings new aspects to the fore in surprising and inventive ways.

Political allegory is at the forefront of the source material and is also clear to see in this production. Even before the play officially begins, we see an inebriated Mr. Jones traverse the stage wearing a blood-stained apron and carrying the carcass of a pig sliced lengthways. Please be aware that the age guidance for this show is 11+ which is appropriate given the nature of some scenes and the number of deaths therein.

The animals tell us, ‘Our life is work, our life is pain, our life is short.’ Little wonder they decide to rebel after having heard Old Major, the boar, give the inspiration for a better way of life. He firmly believes that ‘All animals are equal’ and that they can take charge of their own destiny to create the utopia that will be Animal Farm. But can there ever be perfect unity and what is the price of freedom? It is easy to see the parallels with Stalinism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Sadly, the play is also given extra credence by the sad events presently happening in Ukraine and the actions of Vladimir Putin.

All the animals are puppets, and they are extraordinary. Initially, I find myself watching both puppeteer and their charge as I seek to establish how the puppet works or is manoeuvred. However, I am soon transfixed by the animals themselves as their characters are made whole and real by the expert handling. Each one has an individuality and voice of their own and so much can be conveyed by just the twitch of an ear or the flick of a tail.

I am a huge fan of Toby Olié’s puppetry design, having recently seen his resplendent ‘Aslan’ in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. (Head over to our East Midlands Theatre’s YouTube channel to view our interview with Olié on the latter production.) The construction of the puppets in Animal Farm took eight and a half months and you can see why. The detail on every animal is painstaking. There is so much to embrace and savour. From Boxer the giant carthorse to Eunice the tabby cat, each puppet is perfectly executed.

The puppeteers do a wonderful job at imbuing their puppets with life and dynamism. The voices of the animals are recorded and include actors such as Robert Glenister and Juliet Stevenson. This works well allowing the puppeteers to focus on the realisation of their charges. Even when an animal is just an observer in a scene, they sit or move in believable and realistic ways.

The set design by Bunny Christie is suitably stark as befitting this somewhat dark allegory. Sliding ‘wooden’ panels and steel gantries ground us in the dystopia. However, there are genuine moments of humour in amongst the satire; Barbara the hen swiftly becomes an audience favourite.

Sound (Tom Gibbons) and Lighting (Jon Clark) dovetail effectively to build tension and increasing menace. Sound is used in creative ways; for example, when the animals infiltrate Mr. Jones’ living room to begin their ambush we hear pulsing music and a ticking clock, a direct simulacrum of the dread and confusion Mr. Jones must be feeling at this point. Further examples include a high-octane flavour of the Wild West Frontier when he and his fellow farmers aim to take back his property.

My fifteen-year-old guest really enjoys the show, especially the puppets, his favourite being the magnificent Boxer. He hasn’t read the book but could easily follow the plot and its political message. Moreover, he particularly appreciates how each animal has their own distinct personality and we both enjoy the range of regional accents on show, especially Benjamin the Liverpudlian goat.

The cast of Animal Farm includes Matt ChurcherDarcy CollinsEnrico D. WeyAilsa DallingElisa De GreyEdie EdmundsonMichael Jean-MarainRayo PatelYana PenroseMarkus SchabbingSharon SzeBen Thompson, andMatt Tait. Congratulations to them all on their expertise, grace, and poise in bringing this tale vividly to life.

Age Guidance – 11+

Running time – 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)

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