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Review: Robert Icke’s Animal Farm – A Contemporary Ode to Orwell’s Legacy

My first experience of Robert Icke’s work came in 2014 when his Olivier-nominated adaptation of 1984 took centre stage at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre.

Almost a decade on, I settled into my seat alongside my Dad to watch Icke take on Orwell again, this time bringing his earlier novel, Utopian classic Animal Farm, to life. As committed readers of Orwell and his seminal works, we waited with glee to discover how the revolutionary story would play out.

Programme in hand, ready for the show to start.

The defining feature of this beguiling play is, of course, the puppetry. Some audience members may recognise the style, designed and directed by Toby Olié – creator of puppet-led productions like War Horse, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Pinocchio – to name a few. The cast of animals came to life on the stage, inflicting a contemporary and enchanting spin on the 1945 novel. 

The story of Animal Farm is simple: a group of farm animals grow tired of human oppression. Inspired by the wise words of Old Major, a boar approaching the end of his life, the animals seek an end to the reign of mankind through revolution. With a commitment to egalitarian ideals, they overthrow farmer Jones, rename Manor Farm and establish a list of new commandments to live by. The most notable rule hangs over the story and signals a new dawn: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL. However, much like the Russian revolution which the narrative allegorises, hunger for power soon outweighs the coup’s benevolent intentions. 

While the voice acting was powerful, touching and at times comedic, it is the masterful puppetry that makes this adaption of Animal Farm a resounding success. The animals were truly lifelike, bold in character and controlled majestically by their blacked-out puppeteers. The key trio of pigs – Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer – were incredibly believable, as was audience-favourite Boxer who dominated the stage in both size and heart. Every last movement down to the hens’ neck jerking made the play a brilliant watch. 

Boxer (puppeteers Sharon Sze, Enrico D. Wey and Yana Penrose) - Animal Farm - Photography by Manuel Harlan

For any fellow Orwell fans looking for an exact replica of their favourite satirical novel, you won’t find it here. While Icke’s script aligns closely with the story at the heart of Animal Farm and its defining sentiments, this production offers a refreshing take on a seminal classic. With Wes Anderson-esque sound effects, multimedia additions and innovative set design from Bunny Christie, it is brutal in places and funny in others. This unique adaptation is a true ode to Orwell’s insightful look at revolution and the struggle for equality, told through a thrilling work of theatre for all to enjoy.

Animal Farm is showing at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre until Saturday 23rd April 2022. You can buy tickets here

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