In Review

Animal Farm on stage: a ‘startlingly handsome’ production

War Horse-style animal puppetry is used to ‘magnificent’ effect

George Orwell’s Animal Farm has “something to teach every generation”, said Clive Davis in The Times. But now seems a particularly apt time to revisit his allegorical fable about the slide into authoritarianism and a “megalomaniacal dictator whose words make a mockery of the truth”.

In this “brisk and pungent” staging, War Horse-style animal puppetry is used to “magnificent” effect, and there is evocative music by the likes of Mahler and Puccini to underscore the “graphic novel-like narrative”. The show is a co-production between the Children’s Theatre Partnership and Birmingham Rep. However, it is not ideal for younger audiences: this depiction of a revolution betrayed “doesn’t spare us the gory details”.

It’s a “compelling” production, “superbly done”, said Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times. Both adults and older children should find it gripping. Director Robert Icke has great fun with the story, with the early scenes – when the animals topple Farmer Jones – evincing a “jauntiness redolent of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit”.

The puppets, by Toby Olié, are outstanding, from the ruling-class pigs with concertina-shaped torsos and bossy gaits to the hens that peck and flap. Boxer, the trusting Clydesdale horse, is a particular beauty: he maintains the “monumental shoulders and the dignified tread of a horny-hoofed worker, even as the revolution he supported turns cannibalistic and the porcine leaders turn into the autocrats they replaced”.

This “startlingly handsome” production is phenomenal in many respects, agreed Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. The 14 puppeteers work with “incredible nimbleness”, and the battle and chase scenes are “breathtaking”. But it doesn’t always convey a “palpable sense of fear or menace” on the farm – and there’s an “emotional flatness” to some of the story­telling.

For instance, Napoleon (the Stalin figure) never becomes truly frightening, and his betrayal of Boxer is “not as tragic as it should be”. Still, what the play lacks in its “emotional effects it makes up for in exhilarating spectacle, imagination, energy and the absolute glory of its puppetry”.

Touring England until 28 May

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