Animal Farm – Churchill Theatre, London

The touring production of Animal Farm, which has been doing the rounds since January, ends its tour at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, this week and is so good you would be well-advised to cancel other engagements just so you can go to see it.

George Orwell’s allegorical satire, first published in 1945, has seen versions on film (notably the famous propaganda-heavy Halas and Batchelor offering from 1954), radio, TV and stage (as recently as last year’s National Youth Theatre production), all of which have had different takes on how to present the animals and the political influences of the reactionary tale.

Everybody loves puppets and here the animals come from the same stable as War Horse, designed beautifully by Olié. They are magically magnificent, from the boarish pigs to the gossipy chickens, and from the sturdy horses to the nonchalant cat. The proficiently classy cast ensures that every animal has its own personality and even if in some instances these differ from the book they each have their particular role and we know each of them and their motivation instantly. In the spirit of the book you might find yourself unable to differentiate between human performer and puppet creation, such is the quality of their acting work.

Icke has adapted the novel and also directs, having co-created a version of 1984 back in 2013. His Animal Farm strips away many Orwellian complexities, which may upset those wanting to see critical comment on Stalin’s Russia and tyranny of dictatorship and those who blindly follow. But the allegory is still present while making the broader story about the overthrow of corrupt leaders in a revolution only for the revolutionaries to prove just as autocratic comprehensible and traumatic.

Many of the characters who are anonymous in the book are given names in this production and some may be surprised with its contemporary spin that there is no Boris or Vladimir – yet the story remains blisteringly relevant and it is to Orwell’s credit that the political commentary remains so recognisable.

In War Horse the puppets are crucial but there are plenty of humans around whose stories are told. In Animal Farm the puppets take centre stage (voiced by a variety of well-known actors including Robert Glenister, David Rintoul, Juliet Stevenson and Amaka Okafor) which delivers an extra layer of menace in the case of pigs Old Major, Snowball, Squealer and Napoleon and sentiment with the likes of Boxer, the hard-working carthorse and the fact that every character killed off is heroically named on surtitles.

Bunny Christie’s design is the icing on the cake with effective lighting (Jon Clark) and stunning and imaginative use of music and sound (Tom Gibbons) adding to the highly professional mix.

While the brutality is watered down only slightly, this Animal Farm would be suitable for young audiences over the age of 11, exploring eternal questions about what is to be free, who governs the leaders and the unpleasantness of institutional bullies. The chilling message of “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” remains discomfiting whatever the age or backdrop.

Yet even if you just want to see this piece as a work of entertainment without the all too real egalitarian ideals, political protest and corruption which remain at its core, this Animal Farm is a triumph.

Runs until 28 May 2022  

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