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Animal Farm at The Grand: Cutting edge puppetry heads to Blackpool

A cleverly creative production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm brings the famous farmyard to life at Blackpool Grand Theatre from Tuesday 19 to Saturday 21 April with incredible contemporary puppetry from Toby Olié (whose credits include War Horse and Running Wild ).

Toby joins a talented team of renowned theatre professionals who have expertly re-imagined Orwell’s world-famous fable of a revolution and its aftermath to breathe exciting new life into Napoleon, Snowball, Boxer and all the animals of Manor Farm. Mick Hunter caught up with him to find out more.

What are the challenges of this show?
Every character apart from the farmer is an animal. We have over 30 life-sized puppets, from a huge cart horse to tiny pigeons, so it’s a question of how to get maximum range of articulation in so many puppets with only 14 operators. Boxer the cart horse has three operators, but Clover – who we’ve changed from a horse to a cow – can only have two.  All of the animal characters talk too, which is a challenge, but we found a really interesting way of making it work: we tell the story using each animal’s physicality but then you hear their dialogue as if their actions are being translated for you. We’re also shifting perspective during the show, so you see moments of high octane action in miniature puppet scale, and the intimate, internal moments with the life-sized puppets. The construction of the animals took eight and a half months – the longest puppet build we’ve ever undertaken. 

What does it take to be a puppet operator?
I’m drawn to performers who have an innate sense of physical listening to each other so they can be in tune with each other when collectively performing a puppet character. When someone has ‘puppeteer’ on their CV it’s no guarantee they will have that. Only a handful of our cast would say they are a puppeteer by trade. Many of them trained primarily as actors, dancers, even stilt walkers – they’re from all corners of the industry. I wanted a big mix of ages, experience and skill sets when casting the show. 

Hens (puppeteers Edie Edmundson and Darcy Collins) - Photography by Manuel Harlan

What’s the trick of making an animal puppet work?
In terms of both their design and performance, you want to immerse yourself in the anatomy and physical language of the animal, particularly its emotional indicators like the ears or tail, the difference in gait between a trot and a gallop. For this show, where we are telling a human allegory through animals, we have to decide what of that animal repertoire is helpful and how the articulation and control points of the puppet allow the puppeteers to embody and communicate it visually. Helpfully animals give away their emotions far more quickly than we do, they are far more responsive, immensely emotive things to watch.

Do children respond more easily to puppets than adults?
Puppets are at their strongest when they’re doing the smallest, most minimal actions that really draw you in. While children are closer to a state of play, with toys and imaginative belief, and so get it quite instantly. I always enjoy how adults expect themselves to be more distanced or cynical but if the puppet is doing it’s thing and it is doing it well, they fall just as fast as the children.

The Cast of Animal Farm - Photography by Manuel Harlan

Was War Horse a game changer for the perception of puppetry?
Definitely. Although plenty of companies were already working with puppets in adult theatre, this was a big step forward into a mainstream, populist show. And the reaction to it was mind blowing: it was astonishing to see a puppet bear the emotional weight of an audience for 2 1/2 hours.  War Horse is the puppeteer equivalent of an actor playing Hamlet: that horse doesn’t leave the stage throughout the whole show. You can see that audiences think of puppetry as part of their theatrical palette now. They get it. 

How did you get into puppetry?
I remember religiously watching Sesame Street as a child, enjoying a world where puppets are within a human world and no one bats an eyelid. Then, when I was six or seven and in my Jurassic Park phase – which I’m arguably still in – I found an Usborne ‘How-to Make Puppets’ book in the school library. I’d always made things in a Blue Peter-ish way but that book definitely ignited a spark that led to me putting on shows with puppets made of toilet rolls and cereal boxes behind the ironing board for my family, who were very understanding and supportive. Later, I saw The Lion King in the West End. The mechanics were exposed, and it was avant garde by commercial theatre standards, but to see it taken to heart by so many people made me think: yes this is what I want to do

What’s your workshop like?
I’d like to think if you open the studio door it’s like walking into Willy Wonka’s fantastically imaginative chocolate room, but in reality there’s a lot more wood dust in the air and glue guns lying around. I enjoy keeping puppets from previous shows in my space. I often say they are more like musical instruments than props because they’re so bespoke and often need fine tuning. They are made to give a performance and the thought of them ending up in storage or going mouldy in someone’s garage is a fate I try to avoid.

Napoleon (puppeteers Ben Thompson and Michael Jean-Marain) - Photography by Manuel Harlan
Toby Olie
About Toby

Born in Sheffield and brought up in Northumberland, Toby Olié was recruited directly from the puppetry course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama into the creation of War Horse at the National Theatre; he played the hind of Joey the horse in the original production, before moving to the head for the West End transfer. He has created puppetry for shows including Pinocchio at the National Theatre, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Royal Ballet and Disney’s new staging of The Little Mermaid in Holland, Russia and Japan. He also creates his own productions as Gyre & Gimble, the company he founded with his former War Horse compatriot Finn Caldwell.

Coming to Blackpool

George Orwell’s Animal Farm heads to The Grand from Tuesday 19 April to Saturday 23 April 2022 for matinee and evening performances. 

The animals of Manor Farm join together to drive out the farmer and run the farm themselves. A revolution. And then what? Then freedom. Every animal will be free. Old Major, the prize boar, calls the animals of Manor Farm together. He has had a strange dream of a better future.

“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others…”

This powerful production of Animal Farm has been adapted and directed by the multi award-winning Robert Icke (The Doctor, Hamlet, Mary Stuart, Oresteia, 1984) with stunning set design from four-time Olivier Award-winner Bunny Christie (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Company, Ink, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). It is produced by the Children’s Theatre Partnership (CTP) in association with Birmingham Rep.

Show information & Tickets
  • Some strong language, not suitable for young children. General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children, age guidance 11+
  • Audio described performance on Saturday 23 April at 2pm.
  • Please call the Box Office on 01253 290190 or visit www.BlackpoolGrand.co.uk for full listings, bookings and further information.

Competition

We have 2 tickets for the opening night of Animal Farm (Tues 19 April) courtesy of Blackpool Grand Theatre.

Question: What sort of animal is Napoleon?

(there’s a clue in the article)

All you need to do is visit our Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram and comment on the competition post with your answer. The competition ends at 8pm on Sunday 10 April. We will be in touch be in touch with the winner by Tuesday 12 April.

Terms & conditions 

  • Two tickets for production of Animal Farm at the Blackpool Grand Theatre on Tuesday 19th April
  • Tickets are non-transferable
  • No cash alternative
  • Transport is not included
  • One member must be over the age of 18
  • Suitable for 11+

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