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Theater Review: Animal Farm: A Fairy Story

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When George Orwell wrote his satirical masterpiece Animal Farm, I doubt very much that he had in mind anything like the theatrical adaptation by Ian Woodridge that has just opened in London. Yet, while this piece firmly has its origins in that great work, it is to the credit of Woodridge, the director Freda O’Byrne, and the rest of the cast and crew that this mix of narration, performance drama, and gospel choir provides an original contribution to Orwell’s already substantial legacy.

Walking into the Courtyard, one is immediately transported into an agricultural age. Flanked by a cast of a dozen or so, wearing workman-like blue dungarees who, without a feather or piece of fur in sight, represent the revolution-aspiring animals of Manor Farm, we nod approvingly at Old Major’s (Julia Eve) dying words of liberty and equality.

Likewise, when the animals defeat Mr. Jones et al at the Battle of the Cowshed, to run the farm on egalitarian lines and effectively take charge of their own destinies, we rejoice. And, in parallel to the Russian revolution, when the pigs, corrupted by power, establish a new tyranny under the impressive Napoleon (Justin Melican) and persuasive Squealer (played by the superb David Ajala), we despair and question how it could have gone so wrong.

For this, Woodridge offers an interesting deviation from many versions of this modern-day classic, which tend to present the story from what is essentially a socialist viewpoint; that the system is good, but that individuals are corruptible. Instead, in Woodridge’s version, the cast portray a subtle revisionist distinction; that it is not the fault of the ruling classes for wanting and taking more luxury, but rather it is the fault of the uneducated and blindly trusting classes, represented by the hard-working Boxer (Dennis Ducane), for allowing themselves to be oppressed.

Yet, in O’Byrne’s words, this performance “set out to try to avoid heavy-handed political comment”, and it is this dedicated approach to story-telling — after all, Animal Farm is on one level a fairy story — that gives the production its special charm. From the goosebump-prickling violin accompaniment to Old Major’s rallying cry, to Clovers’ (Vanessa Edwards) ghostly, experience-tainted renditions of the revolutionary marching songs, and through the lively interspersions of the blackbird Moses, this show has bags of character. And, what’s more, it is energetic enough to convey it, helped along ably by the bellowing voice of the storyteller, Martyn Hill.

If there is a criticism, and this is by no means the perfect production; at times the performance was over-indulgent. The Battle of the Cowshed, in which the Jones’ are driven out, is chaotic and, for a moment, slightly confusing (but then, couldn’t we argue that all wars are chaotic and confusing?). Equally, the scene where the pigs finally confirm their betrayal as “more equal than others”, with alcohol and mocking, was also unnecessarily drawn-out, lasting long after the point was established. Yet, conversely, other aspects were not emphasised enough; such as the tyranny of the canine secret police force, which survived with just a fleeting mention.

However, when sufficient attention was placed on the design and overall effect of a scene, this was invariably carried off well. Seldom in theatre, on whatever scale, has there been a more realistic storm than the one which blew down the great economic hope that was the windmill. And, it is this that creates a belief that, with a bit more polishing around the staging, and greater attention on the technical aspects of lighting and design, that this play can hit greater heights.

In all, a rough diamond but well worth seeing.

by Jonathan Grant and Nirmal Grewal

The production continues until April 9. Links: online booking; phone – 0870 899 3338; the production poster.

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