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BWW Review: ANIMAL FARM, Richmond Theatre

Robert Icke's darkly entertaining production lets the puppets do the talking

BWW Review: ANIMAL FARM, Richmond Theatre

BWW Review: ANIMAL FARM, Richmond Theatre George Orwell's allegory of the Russian revolution and the Soviet descent into authoritarianism has something to say to every generation. Indeed, watching it today, in the era of war in Europe, fake news and failing trust in our leaders, it feels more resonant than ever.

Director Robert Icke's adaptation of Animal Farm is a co-production between the Children's Theatre Partnership and Birmingham Rep. The animals of Manor Farm rise up in revolution against the human owners, in a quest for a place where all animals can be equal. When some animals become more equal than others, the society they are trying to build falls apart.

The production tells the story through Toby Olié's gorgeously detailed puppets, who came to fame through his work on War Horse. The brutish pigs, gruff Napoleon, lisping Snowball and master of propaganda Squealer, have mean faces. Boxer, the kindly horse, is huge and imposing, and Bluebell the panting Old English Sheepdog is so realistic it takes a moment to realise it is a puppet. The famous moment where he bursts out of a barn to defeat the farmers is dramatic and artfully done.

The puppeteers are incredibly deft and imaginative, as they all meld into their animal counterparts. All are given unique mannerisms and the animals really appear to live and breathe. There is often a playfulness as well as seriousness to the puppetry, particularly in the scenes where miniatures of the puppets are used to illustrate the action. The only human character is Farmer Jones, played by Jonathan Dryden Taylor, who is cruel and uncaring towards his animals.

The puppeteers also bring life to the animals through their noises, but the animal's voices are pre-recorded by actors such as Robert Glenister and Juliet Stevenson. From this we hear a Scouser goat and a Brummie horse, but it also creates a slight disconnect with the puppets themselves.

Icke has experience with Orwell on stage, having directed 1984 in the West End and on Broadway. Although this is targeted at children (aged over 11), the show has much to offer to everyone. There is no visible bloodshed, but there is a lot of violence: dogs are run over, cats are beaten to death and sheep are executed, as is Old Major, who dies peacefully in the book. The death toll mounts rapidly as the regime descends into violent brutality.

However, Napoleon, representative of Stalin, is not always as menacing and frightening as he comes across in the book. Boxer's heartbreaking betrayal, that leads to his demise, is a little muddled and, therefore, does not have the same tragic effect as in the book.

Bunny Christie's sparse and dark set captures the shadowy nature of what is going on in the story. It also lets the puppets be the focus. Tom Gibbons' sound design uses a thumping base and includes chunks of classical music. Together, with Jon Clark's intelligent lighting design, this makes for a visually immersive production.

As a warning against communism, this is a rather unique production that entertains, shocks and really makes you think.

Animal Farm is Richmond Theatre until 14 May then touring

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

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