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Review: Animal Farm at Riverside Theatre

By Matthew Pritchard

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a story most of us are familiar with. Either we read it in high school, know someone who did, or watched one of the film adaptations. So, it’s easy enough to write off a production like this one as an instance of “yeah, I know Animal Farm, I don’t need to watch it again”, but I’d really advise against that.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the story, Animal Farm takes place on Manor Farm, where the animals, fed up with the actions of their alcoholic and abusive master Farmer Jones, and incensed by prize pig, Old Major, who has dreamed of a magnificent future for animals, free from the control of humans, stage a revolution. They succeed (renaming it “Animal Farm”), but that’s just the beginning, as in-fighting, leadership squabbles and natural disasters, all warped by near-constant spin-doctoring, transform equality into oppression.

If you ask anyone about the story of Animal Farm, you’ll probably get a response along the lines of “it’s just the story of the Russian revolution and Stalinist Russia, but with animals.” And, well, yeah, that’s pretty much it. On the surface anyway. Because while Animal Farm was written as a satire of events that started over one-hundred years ago, I found myself thrown by how topical it was all feeling. Which should be weird, right?

The character of Squealer, especially, got to me. Squealer is the second-in-command to Napoleon, the eventual leader of Animal Farm, and serves as his spin machine. Every inequality inflicted on the animals is perfectly explained away, how it’s really for their benefit or how the other animals just aren’t ‘remembering correctly’. How yes, Napoleon might be betraying the rules the animals built their society off, but it’s all a calculated tactical decision! The real enemy is outside the farm, those that want to invade, to undermine and to weaken the glory of Animal Farm.

I swear I’ve heard something like this recently, but for the life of me I can’t remember where… But hey, that’s the nature of allegory, right? Taking a complex topic and boiling it down into an easily digestible narrative. And Geordie Brookman’s interpretation of Orwell’s work brings this narrative to life in a captivatingly melancholic fashion.

This adaptation of Animal Farm is a stark, minimalist interpretation that takes the form of a one man show. Yeah, I was surprised when I found out too, a cast of about twenty characters, most of them barn animals, are all played by the same performer, and what a performance it is.

Dale March is a performer and storyteller in full command of his craft. Each character has their own voice and physicality and not once was I confused as to who I was watching at any one time. From the stoic, strong and unnervingly naïve draft horse Boxer, to the slimy, silver-tongued Squealer, the story comes to life in engaging fashion. The whole show went for a little over an hour, but March is such an engaging performer it was like waking up from a vivid, dream filled sleep and wondering where the time went.

I compare the time spent watching it to dream filled sleep not because it made me tired (the opposite, in fact) but because the staging has an almost ethereal, dream-like quality to it. The work of Bianca Kennedy (design), Alexander Ramsay (Lighting design/tour tech manager), and Andrew Howard (composition and sound design) work together smoothly. The stage and the theatre are ensconced in shadow, with lighting used to make the characters appear as though they are floating in space. Two long, skinny trapeziums adorned with bars of light create the rest of the set. The lighting, shadows and moody atmospheric sound design swallow you whole, letting your imagination do the rest of the work.

This production of Animal Farm is engaging, charming and at times, rather unsettling. It’s a show that will stay with you in the back of your mind, leading you to ponder your own place in the big metaphorical farmyard, and what that could possibly mean. It’s only on for a short time, so I recommend checking it out. Especially if you only vaguely remember it from high school English.

Photo Credit: James Hartley

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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