April 26, Liverpool Playhouse
Reviewed for Writebase: https://writebase.co.uk/
A magical and meaningful production which draws out so many parallels with life today, 80 years on, there are nearly as many lines as those spoken by the excellent cast. In other words, so many lessons to be learned in this iconic tale of animals taking over. Near as damnit, the lunatics running the asylum, with their delusional ideas and grandiose so-called victories.
But puppets…well now, such is the level of sophistication that although an enormous pig tottering on its back trotters should appear ludicrous, it is quite unsettling, almost terrifying. And all the creatures satisfy sight and sound so well, you can almost smell and touch them. Everything is ingeniously put together, perfectly enhanced by the brilliant use of lighting and the variety of music, whether the action is menacing or moving or comical, including opera for moments of high drama, and ending with something which sounds distinctly Russian.
The opening scene is a tableau reminiscent of an old Master, the animals gathered around to heed the words of the pig, Old Major. It’s a dog’s life on Mr Jones’ Manor Farm, all the animals so badly treated that when when he preaches revolution, they are immediately converted. After all, rebellion always entices with the promise of a better life: the vision. They go ahead even though he is no longer there to lead them, left to the tender mercies of Snowball (sadly not re-named Snowflake) and Napoleon. The manifesto, or 8 Commandants, may start off as laudable but as time goes on, the rules are re-written and the goalposts moved, all over the place… sounds familiar?
The stage is minimally decorated because there’s such a large cast – and very large creatures, with some of the more dramatic scenes foregrounded then the perspective shifted, moving back so as to get the bigger picture with the action continuing at the back in miniature, for example, Snowball pursued through the village by Napoloen’s vicious guard dogs. This is further enhanced by being interspersed by more tableaux, usually the increasingly acrimonious meetings, which slowly demonstrate that all animals certainly are not equal. Similarly, the gruesome is offset by humour in a clever mix; although the chickens are un-named in the book, somehow, calling a hen Barbara seems hilarious, yet they are the first oppose Napoleon when he intends to barter their eggs, just as the farmer used to steal them to sell. Likewise, Mollie, the yes…and no mare; she may appear dense but is smart enough to make her get away.
The puppets and puppeteers are a sight to behold, the animals so realistic, with seemingly a flick of a finger, and handled so well, especially when addressing the audience. It appears like a cast of thousands, every one of whom should be named but sadly, space does not allow, and voiced by actors such as Robert Glenister, Heather Long, David Rintoul and Juliet Stephenson. Farmer Jones is well portrayed by Jonathan Dryden Taylor, whether thuggish or puzzled; the revolution gets off to an amusing start when he settles down one evening only to be gaslighted by the chickens and the cat playing tricks on him. But the villain of the piece, even more despicable than the power hungry Napoleon, is the aptly named second-in-command, Squealer, with her insidious propaganda. In huge contrast, comes Boxer, the magnificent, noble but stubbornly loyal hard-working carthorse who makes a tremendous first impression crashing onto the stage in the first clash with the humans.
Surtext sets the time and place, and provides a long, long roll call of the animals and how they died: starved, executed for treason; in battle. Moses the raven may be untrustworthy but he departs this mortal coil in a most affecting way, although this is curiously denied Boxer, whose betrayal by Napoleon is also under-played. However, the rooster, the carthorse’s alarm clock, deserves the spotlight for its appearance, although the cat’s movements are not as entirely convincing as its nature, but Bluebell the dog is virtually life-like. The few survivors include the canny Scouse goat and Clover the cow, and the play ends with her calf, Daisy, demanding answers.
And if the question is, would you go to see this play? The answer’s a resounding yes. The Children’s Theatre Partnership aims to inspire a life-long love of theatre, and this should do it – no mistake.
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