clover and boxer

Clover (puppeteers Yana Penrose and Edie Edmundson) and Boxer (puppeteers Elisa De Grey, Matt Tait and Rayo Patel). Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Animal Farm

Birmingham Rep


George Orwell’s political satire is not the easiest to stage when the main protagonists are all animals, a whole farm full of livestock, from a giant shire horse, a cow, a load of pigs, along with sheep and goats to chickens, geese, attack dogs and a cat - but this world premiere production has made a decent fist of it.

Although a novella, the book still has a lot to pack into a stage show, so director and adapter Robert Icke has condensed the book with perhaps the most famous and memorable quote of the book, about the qualified equality of animals, delayed here to be used almost as a sign-off line.

The characters are represented by life size puppets brought to life by a team of puppeteers with a level of detail that only long hours of rehearsal can bring, co-ordinated superbly with voices off, and even the voices have variation to add interest.

There is the grumpy goat, Benjamin, Clover, a Scottish cow, Boxer the giant cart horse, by gum, and then the skittish Brummie white mare, Molly.

There are elements of humour, indeed early on we have laughs, but as the story unfolds Orwell’s fable becomes darker and more sinister.

The book was published in 1945 when Orwell’s political views were well formed. Born in India to a British civil servant, educated at Eton and then joining the Imperial Police in Burma, he was the epitome of the more modest ranks of the upper middle class.

But that was never going to be the life of Eric Arthur Blair as he was then. He dressed and lived as a tramp to write articles, lived in the poor part of Paris, went and lived among the poor, working classes in Lancashire and Yorkshire – writing books such as Down and out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying then went off to the Spanish Civil War to fight on the Republican side where he was wounded, which prevented his military involvement in WWII.

boxer and squeela

Boxer and Squeela (puppeteers Ailsa Dalling and Matt Churcher)

He had become a democratic socialist and hated any form of totalitarian regime whether fascist or communist resulting in his political allegory Animal Farm: A fairy Story, the sub heading long ago dropped.

The hidden setting, beyond the farm in the English shires, is the Russian revolution with Old Major, the benevolent old, prize winning boar, opening proceedings, a representation in porcine form of Karl Marx, with his idealistic vision of an equal, fairer society.

Major’s death brings other pigs to the fore such as Snowball (Trotsky perhaps) who is to be overthrown by Napoleon (Stalin) with Squeela (minister of propaganda, Molotov) happily spinning everything to make whoever was leading pig at the time a hero. The once supreme leader Snowball becoming a non-pig, a banished traitor as his history is rewritten with Napoleon the new hero of the revolution.

The animals on badly run Manor Farm, owned by cruel drunkard Mr Jones, decide to make a stand and, after a short revolution, namely one man against a farmload of angry animals, Mr Jones has been run off the land and the farm, now to be named Animal Farm, is theirs to be run under Old Major’s eight commandments known as . . . the eight commandments – imagination not one of the talking pig’s strengths in the early stages.

Every animal is fed and free, Cows keep their milk for their calves, chickens’ eggs hatch into chicks, no animals are killed, all animals are equal under Old Major’s philosophy . . . and new leader Snowball, until the farmyard coup of course, tells them how the harvest is the biggest, greatest, fastest etc ever seen . . . haven’t we heard that sort of hyperbole from leaders before? 

We watch the shift slowly over time as the eight commandments become, well, reinterpreted, rewritten and then slowly reduced in number, eventually to one, while the pigs, under Napoleon start to take control and command.


Napoleon (puppeteers Ben Thompson and Michael Jean-Marain)

We have battle scenes as the farmers try to reoccupy the farm, and on a screen high above, like surtitles at the opera, we get time lines and explanations along with a rising body count of executed traitor animals, and an electronic memorial to those lost in battle.

The pendulum of power is slowly swinging away from the people, or in this case, other animals, as we see Napoleon and Squeela starting to rear up on just hind legs – four legs good two legs bad better

The slow transformation is well controlled as we head towards the sad, but inevitable end. I first read the book some 60 years ago, and it perhaps has had more influence on me than I ever knew it would then, and it even has it’s echoes in modern life, current headlines a case in point, the idea of one law for us and one for them, for example, or do as we say not as we do.

The book is perhaps sadder and far darker than this play but even so Orwell’s point that revolution merely changes the tyrants at the top but not much else - things might even be worse - is well developed.

If there is a criticism the puppeteers acting as the rear legs of larger animals could be better defined in some cases, at least as far as the supposed legs are concerned, while the cut off bodies of the animals could perhaps be colour co-ordinated, pink not being an ideal choice in this case.

The puppets themselves, designed by Toby Olié, with a CV that includes War Horse and Goodnight Mister Tom have some lovely touches, especially on the smaller ones such as chickens with the rather dim Barbara, while Napoleon has a suitable look of brutishness and power. The animals all look like, well, animals.

Old Boxer might not have the realism of, say, Joey in War Horse, but he has a certain charm, as does Clover, the cow, the two largest puppets, and after all this is a fable, a fairy tale - let's be honest, whoever heard of talking animals? All right, apart from Doctor Dolittle, I'll give you that.

So, animals with a softer look, rather more like illustrations in a book than photographs, are closer to what is required here rather than stark realism and all the puppets work and are worked well.

Jon Clark's lighting is subtle and adds to the drama on a flexible set with sliding panels from Bunny Christie with scenes enhanced with music and sound from Tom Gibbons.

The result is a clever adaptation of a classic of English literature bringing Orwell’s political fairy tale to a new audience more than 75 years on.

Robert Icke, incidentally, first came to national attention in 2013 with a critically acclaimed production of Orwell's dystopian 1949 novel, 1984, when instead of farm animals it was human animals living in the ultimate totalitarian state.

This Children's Theatre Partnership and Birmingham Rep production runs to 05-02-22. 

Roger Clarke


Animal Farm will be making hay at Wolverhampton Grand, 17-21 May, 2022.

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