Review: Animal Farm at Norwich Theatre

A touring production of Animal Farm, (Children’s Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep) is performing at Norwich Theatre Royal until March 12th, and it is not to be missed. The script is masterfully adapted from George Orwell’s book by Robert Icke, and performed by a cast of expert puppeteers.

Before the play even begins, you get an immediate glimpse of the tone that will drive the evening. The stage is set, with wood-panelled flats representing the farm’s gates. A man wanders across stage every so often, carrying a shoulder of meat and covered in a bloody butcher’s apron. Regardless of how well you know George Orwell’s classic before attending, you are therefore plunged into the world of pre-revolution Manor Farm.

The cast of characters is, with the exception of a few farmers, almost entirely puppet-based, and the first thing to note about this production is just how incredible these creations are. They are sculpted beautifully, the perfect mixture of creepy and animalistic, with enough recognisable emotion to be empathetic. The puppet designer is Toby Olié, of War Horse fame, who also co-directed the play with Icke. Old Major was a particular favourite of mine, with so much character immediately oozing from him; in the white hairs on his well-crafted head, and the ways in which he moved, perfectly complimenting his gruff vocal qualities.

Olié says of working with animal-puppets, that animals ‘give away their emotions far more quickly than we do’, a sentiment which really carries through as you watch the play. The voices are separate to the action on stage, but the timing is impeccable, and the characters interact in real-time. You can feel the stress coming off Snowball as he tries to do right, the indignation of the goose, and the frustrations of Boxer the carthorse. There is never a perfectly still, quiet moment on the stage, with fluttering and fidgeting occurring at all times, various feather-flutters, and hoof-shuffles, really giving a menagerie-type feel to the misé-en-scene. The animals are even seen to breathe, and as a result you very quickly forget that they are puppets at all.

The production also excels in the little details. At one point, I noticed the little pigeons, nestled in the rafters of the barn on stage, and from then on I was vigilantly watching for such small, world-building details. These are showcased perfectly as the tale progresses, included in the little hints of things not being quite right with the animals’ revolution.

Bunny Christie is the set and costume designer for this production, and she, too excels. The flats that make up the farm, also work to cover up the puppeteers at certain points, and we get a sense that the set is incredibly malleable to the performer’s needs in this highly physical story. In addition, the farmers’ costumes are both in keeping with their role, but also display a sinister element, which helps us to be on board with the animal’s bid for freedom.

The story is guided through with a screen above the stage, providing information on the time of day, days since the revolution, and much more poignant information that drives the eerie, horrifying narrative. This is helpful since there are many montages, with slow-motion fight scenes and the animals working steadily on their farm, and these feel as charming as they do productive.

Animal Farm is a story which, no matter how many times I see or read it, sends shivers down my spine. It is terrifying and timeless, and, I imagine, very difficult to do justice to. But this production does do it justice: from the elegance of the puppets whom the story relies on, to the world they inhabit via world- and set-building, this is a must-see play that will have you both laughing and tearing-up, as the well-meaning farm-dwellers battle all-too recognisable forces of evil.

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Molly Phillips

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August 2022
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