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Review: Animal Farm at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

George Orwell’s classic tale Animal Farm plays at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre this week, presented by The Children’s Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep and adapted by Robert Icke.

Animal Farm
Animal Farm

A favourite on the school curriculum, the storyline is one for adults and children alike, although in parts it is without doubt a tough watch for youngsters.

A pack of farm animals rebel against their farmer in the hope of creating a world where all creatures are free of human constraints and therefore able to live their lives as they wish. All is well until a pig, aptly named Napoleon, takes charge and before long, a dictatorship evolves which is even worse than before.

Well, that is the story from a child’s point of view. Make of it what you will if you are an adult.

Animal Farm

Is it politics? Of course, and there is no doubt Orwell used Animal Farm to project his own political views, but it is a story which works on different levels, hence the ingenuity of it.

Written over the winter of 1943-1944, when a war-torn Britain battled for survival, maybe the ideas for the plot came from life at the time, although Orwell insisted the story reflects the events leading to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

It is short and snappy at just 90 minutes without an interval, so plan accordingly, but in that period of time, a whole novel is cleverly condensed so that all the highlights of the original story are included.

Animal Farm

Although an inhuman, brutal tale, the skill of Orwell’s writing is unprecedented. The phrase “four feet good, two feet bad” soon loses all credence as the leaders slowly gain power and begin to stand.

In Robert Icke’s unique production, puppets portray the animal characters, but we are not talking strings and nodding heads. Designer and director, Toby Olie, of War Horse fame, has created full-size creatures which are so realistic and natural that you will want to pet them.

This is physical theatre at its very best and the skills of the superb cast of puppeteers are humbling. Their dexterity and speed across the stage is exceptional and an all-star cast of voice actors, which includes Juliet Stevenson and Robert Glenister, create the perfect characterisation for his or her animal, so much so that it is almost impossible to choose stand-out performances.

Bunny Christie’s creative and atmospheric scenery makes the humans blend into the background, putting the puppets front stage, and together with excellent lighting design courtesy of Jon Clark, the scenes evolve seamlessly.

Effective staging and strong lighting centre stage create focus on the minimalistic set, while the timeline of the piece is played out on a screen in neon lights.

The individual puppets are endearing and before long, favourites emerge. It is heart-breaking therefore when the sad tolling of a bell, indicates the death of an animal, and you cringe as their name, fate and age appear on the screen.

There is a small amount of subtle comedy, but sadly parts of the story are rather violent and cruel and so, for me, Animal Farm is not one for younger children. Orwell originally entitled the piece 'Animal Farm, A Fairy Story' and I think we would all agree fairy stories are often brutal and wicked, so maybe he was making a point.

An outstanding production, suitable for older children, but only just.

Animal Farm runs until Saturday. For tickets visit grandtheatre.co.uk or call 01902 429212.

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