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Review – Animal Farm – Liverpool Playhouse

OH to be a fly on the wall in the wings at the Playhouse this week, as this touring production of Animal Farm, produced by Birmingham Rep and Children’s Theatre Partnership, visits the theatre – it must be a squeeze for all the performers out there.

There have been many stage versions of Orwell’s dark, political tale and, in most, the parts of animals are generally taken by human actors in varying degrees of costume or disguise, which serves to highlight the allegorical nature of the story. Here, though, adapter/director Robert Icke (whose utterly devastating adaptation of 1984 appeared at the Playhouse in 2013) has opted to use life-size puppets, many of which have 2 or 3 operators. Only the very few human characters are directly played by actors.

If the name of Bunny Christie appears as set designer on a show then you know you are in for something visually stunning, and this is indeed a feast for the eyes. There is something richly cinematic about the staging, with every scene creating a stunning image, lit in painterly fashion by Jon Clark. Adding to the film-like feel of the presentation, all the animal voices are pre-recorded, with the puppets effectively lip-syncing to this voice track. Tom Gibbons who created the soundscape has included, alongside brooding effects, an array of sampled music – notably chunks of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony that repeat ominously, underpinning the action, along with slices of Shostakovich and many more, and it’s occasionally hard as a music-lover not to be distracted in a sort of ‘Name That Tune’ game.

The pedigree of this show’s creative team is impeccable, with puppets designed and directed by Toby Olié, who is co-director at Gyre and Gimble Theatre Company and was associate puppet designer on Warhorse.

Whilst this is a show made by Children’s Theatre Partnership it does carry an 11+ advisory, and Icke certainly pulls no punches in the way he delivers the story. There is a beguiling wit about much of the text and the beautiful puppetry could lull us into a false sense of security but, very much like the book that was its source, all is not what it seems. Many of the set pieces really pack a punch, and despite the familiarity of the narrative the show succeeds in surprising the audience numerous times with some pretty explosive moments of theatricality.

Running at a tight 90 minutes without an interval, this is an attention grabber that takes a hold of you and doesn’t let go until the final curtain. Whilst the recorded voice track is sometimes a little confusing (you occasionally have to look for the animal that is ‘speaking’) it’s easy to see how, with such a large cast on tour, the insurance of having almost all the dialogue ‘in the can’ is a sensible option and will help to ensure that the company are better able to cover for illness. Once you get used to the idea that the actor who is speaking could well be sitting in the audience (and at least one of them is on press night) then you stop noticing it – rather like reading subtitles in a film.

This is a very strong adaptation of a timeless story that once again finds frightening relevance in our society. All theatre is not created equal… some productions are certainly more equal than others.

Animal Farm is at the Playhouse until 30th April and then continues touring throughout May via Canterbury, Richmond, Wolverhampton and Bromley.

Star rating – 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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