By Charlie Knights
I remember when I first read George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm. GCSE English, back in my days of being young and fancy free (4 years ago). I loved it, the symbolism, the drama, the characters, all pulled together in a brilliant writing style to create one of the most iconic pieces of literature I can think of. Coupled with the huge hype for the Act One production I had the pleasure of seeing last week, I went into this with high hopes, and extreme trepidation.
Lo’ and behold if they didn’t rise to the challenge and exceed my expectations. I was greeted by a coupling of energy and enthusiasm that blew my mind. Animal Farm is a difficult production to put on, having previously been adapted for film twice, both in 1954 and 1999, as well as to theatre twice, in 1984 (ironically for an Orwell production) by Richard Peaslee, and in 1985 in a solo version that has toured worldwide since. However each of these deviated in some regard, be it changes to the story seen predominately in the movie versions, or to the cast. This was not to dissuade our earnest director Martin Newman.
Animal Farm, for the uninformed, is an allegorical and dystopian tale, warning of the beliefs of communism and the issues that would come about after reflecting on the events leading up the Russian Revolution of 1917. With a wide cast, and being a heavy description novel, I was interested to see how the interpretation would follow. All the characters took turns acting as the narrator for the story over the course of the story. Moses (Becki Dack) was the most frequent narrator, acting as the sly raven that observed the events unfolding.
The production opens to the animals gathering around Old Major (Luke Merchant) who delivered an impassioned speech on the ideal of communism. The hoarsely croaked delivery enraptured cast and audience alike, although I have to say the highlight was the sung delivery of Beasts of England at the end. Opened by Phil Sim (who was a member of the ensemble, as well as playing Mr Pilkington), it gave me chills.
Commendation must be given to the pigs. The de facto leaders of Animal Farm, Snowball (Anna Crosby), Napoleon (Verity Masterson), and Squealer (Katie Bradshaw). Each brought a certain feature I was particularly impressed with; be it Anna’s energy on stage and sheer volume of delivery, to the way Napoleon’s stage presence and way Verity carried herself on stage, to Katie’s hilarious lines and interactions with other cast on stage. At parts they definitely hog-ged the limelight on stage, but I find it difficult to complain about that. (Side Note: I apologise but the chance to abuse some puns are too sweet to put off, swine that I am).
Now back in the day of reading Animal Farm, my favourite characters were Benjamin and Boxer, and boy o boy did Dominic Parish and Aaran Thomas do them justice. Orwell always considered himself similar to the beaten down Benjamin, world weary and critical, and the death of Boxer in the second act was heart wrenching. It’s always a good sign to have audience members tearing up after an hour or so of interacting with a character. Adding to this little pair was the other main horse of the show, Clover (Imogen Carter) whose care for Boxer was beautiful, and it was her cry of pain that broke me when Boxer is taken away.
Animal farm features two large battles pivotal to the plot, and they were exciting scenes indeed. With choreography arranged by Lucy Spain that ended up involving Anna being thrown around in what seemed like every directors heart attack moment. Chaos was on stage. Actors and props flew about. I would say that during these particular scenes the music could get a bit loud, and with the changing narrative it was tough to follow what was on stage. However, you can’t really complain too much about the energy, with none of the ensemble (Miriam Hopkins, Elis Williams, Jasmina Saleh, Jack Miles) stopping or pausing, I almost never knew what to watch.
But a production of this quality would not be wrapped up without a top quality behind the scenes crew, and other than the choreography I have to mention the costume and makeup, arranged and put together by CJ Friday, Elisa Leppanen, and Sara Williams. The pigs all had synthetic snouts, which led to Napoleon dramatically ripping it off at the end of the final scene. Also to Emily Broad, the stage manager, who constructed the best set I have seen so far at Act One, which had the joint delight of being dynamic at parts, with sections being folded out by cast or crew behind the scenes, and at the end new lights shone and revealed UV paint writing “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS” in what I thought was a fantastic stylistic choice.
To summarise, despite the overwhelming hype for this production, and my confusion due to the overwhelming nature of certain scenes, I thought Act one outdid themselves on this one. Martin Newman said that the cast and crew was the best he had ever worked with, and you can tell they had bonded. Act two I considered to be stronger, but in my brief foray into the smokers’ area during the interval, the excitement of the audience and the way everyone was speaking about individual details spoke volumes. Rest up all involved, and be incredibly proud of all you achieved. I hope to see more of everyone involved in future.