Review: The magic becomes real in a powerful Animal Farm on Coventry stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Animal Farm at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

The Cast of Animal Farm (photo: Manuel Harlan)
The Cast of Animal Farm (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Animal Farm is George Orwell’s well known political satire on the evils of both capitalism and communism. Now the Belgrade Theatre and The Children’s Theatre Partnership in association with Birmingham Rep bring it to glorious life with full-sized puppetry, a wonderful script, and enthralling action.

The novel was written during the Second World War. Orwell himself described it as a fairy tale, and like most fairy tales it features talking animals. But unlike most fairy tales there is not a happy ending. Animal Farm combines whimsy with brutal political realism.

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Manor Farm is a run-down establishment, presided over by a cruel and negligent farmer. But among the animals revolution is stirring. Led by the inspirational pig Major they banish the farmer and take over the farm. Here all animals are equal, and a good harvest brings plenty. But when Major dies his place is taken by the dictatorial pig Napoleon. It’s not long before the other animals receive fewer rations and are worked harder, while the pigs grow fatter and fatter. Eventually the farm is ‘rescued’ by the pigs forming trade alliances with the humans and becoming more human themselves. Soon the glorious revolution and its ideals of equality and hope are forgotten, and the ordinary animals continue as before, exploited, and abused, their produce sold for the benefit of others. Capitalism wins, the workers lose.

I don’t know how much the ideals of communism mean to a generation born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, though judging by the number of younger people in the packed audience the book is widely taught in schools. This performance should bring home to them and anyone watching the maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether it will be seen as a historical play or one that is bang up to date and still relevant, is an open question, and one that should be debated.

The performance is a triumph of the art of stage management as much as it is of acting, as the script is pre-recorded and the puppets and props take centre stage. Toby Olié as puppet master and Bunny Christie as stage designer head an outstanding team. But the great thing about Animal Farm is that the gadgetry never gets in the way of the story. The puppets are handled with such dexterity that we quickly ignore their puppeteers standing beside them. I for one, forgot to question whether a goat on stage was pushing an actual hay bale in the harvest or a lightweight fake. As in every good fairy tale, the magic becomes real.

The Belgrade Theatre is riding high at the moment with two shows, this and Fighting Irish, attracting good audiences at the same time. It shows the appetite for live theatre is still there, notwithstanding the pandemic and the energy crisis. And there’s much more to come, both here and in the region generally. Animal Farm is a marvellous contribution to that resurrection, a wonderful demonstration of the power of imagination and live action. Long Live Theatre, I say.

Animal Farm runs until April 16. Call 024 7655 3055 or visit belgrade.co.uk/events/animal-farm to book.