Stage adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm is 'an immaculately performed and powerful show'

The cast of Animal Farm.

The cast of Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

Angela Singer reviews a magnificent touring production of Animal Farm at Cambridge Arts Theatre.

The cast of Animal Farm.

The cast of Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

The book Animal Farm, which George Orwell originally subtitled 'A Fairy Story', was written as a warning.

Revolutions may start out with ideals – hadn’t the mantra of the French Revolution in 1799 been Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – but didn’t it degenerate into cruelty and corruption?

Animal Farm was written in protest at the regime in Russia under Joseph Stalin.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin accrued power until he was in effect an absolute monarch. Under him some 700,000 people were executed in his 'Great Purge' and some five million died of hunger.

Clearly, the regime was against everything British people stood for – the reason they were, at the time Orwell was writing, fighting the Second World War. But Orwell had difficulty finding a publisher because, of course, Russia was then an ally against the Nazis.

Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Grey, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel) and Clover (puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson)

Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Grey, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel) and Clover (puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson) in Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

The Children’s Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep has created a stage version of Animal Farm using life-size puppets.

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They move, snort, sniff, whimper and bark in such a life-like way that the production is visceral.

It’s unforgettable. The puppeteers are so skilled it is uncanny.

Napoleon (puppeteers Ben Thompson and Michael Jean-Marain) in Animal Farm.

Napoleon (puppeteers Ben Thompson and Michael Jean-Marain) in Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

As the play opens we see the brutality of the farmer and why the animals decide to lead a revolt.

But pretty soon, from the opening scenes, the pigs take control. They are the leaders.

Two of them take charge, Napoleon and Snowball – until they fall out. Executions follow.

The regime runs on fear. All animals were never equal.

Boxer (puppeteers Sharon Sze, Enrico D. Wey and Yana Penrose) in Animal Farm.

Boxer (puppeteers Sharon Sze, Enrico D. Wey and Yana Penrose) in Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

From the beginning, roles are devolved. Boxer is worked to death.

The hens protest at their eggs being sold until they are starved into submission.

Hens (puppeteers Edie Edmundson and Darcy Collins) in Animal Farm.

Hens (puppeteers Edie Edmundson and Darcy Collins) in Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

The pig Squeela is the spin doctor who explains, as the show unfolds, the new meaning of the animals’ original Eight Commandments.

What was once: No animal shall kill another animal becomes 'No animal shall kill another animal – WITHOUT CAUSE'.

Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matthew Churcher) in Animal Farm.

Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matthew Churcher) in Animal Farm. - Credit: Manuel Harlan

Orwell saw that the Russian people having undergone a revolution (which was in fact a change of regime from one small group of privileged people to another) had not ended tyranny just changed tyrants.

This is an immaculately performed and powerful show. Directed by Robert Icke, it is designed for children from 11 upwards and the young audience on the opening night at Cambridge Arts Theatre were spellbound.

There is a little sprinkling of humour from some of the gentler animals, the hens and the cat, but in the main, though marvellously performed, it is grim stuff.

Political plays are most often set in another place and at another time. Interesting that this production comes as a British government with a huge majority is about to pass legislation to outlaw protest.

Animal Farm is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 12 then touring. It is at The Theatre Royal, Norwich from March 8–12.