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Review: Animal Farm at Liverpool Playhouse ****1/2

George Orwell’s allegorical tale of revolution gone bad may be almost 80 years old, but it continues to resonate strongly, not least in the current climate of war and oppression.

Orwell may have created a cast of animal characters, but they represent and embrace the very worst and best of humankind. And part of the power of Animal Farm is recognising the human nature - both good and bad - in, as well as the specific identities of, its protagonists.

So it's perhaps a bold move for this imaginative, visually striking new stage production from the Children Theatre’s Partnership to keep the fable firmly in the farmyard, populated by War Horse puppet designer Toby Olié’s roster of characters who are brought vividly to life by a large cast of puppeteers to a recorded soundtrack voiced by actors including Robert Glenister, Juliet Stephenson, David Rintoul and Liverpool’s Kevin Harvey.

Bold but strangely effective and surprisingly chilling.

When Manor Farm’s brutish Mr Jones is overthrown, it’s with the desire – articulated by Old Major the patriarch porker – to live free in a society where everyone works for the collective good and ‘all animals are equal’.

Above: Snowball and Napoleon the pigs. Top: The animals of Animal Farm. Photos by Manuel Harlan

This bucolic paradise is, of course, short-lived as the pigs, led by Snowball and Napoleon, claim they can see ‘the bigger picture’ needed for success and start to take charge, supported by their propaganda handmaiden Squealer.

From there it’s an inexorable descent from the glorious victory at the Battle of the Cowshed to the crushing tyranny of Napoleon’s repressive revisionist regime where the eight commandments enshrined on the barn wall are quietly re-worked and distilled into just one: All animals are created equal…but some are more equal than others.

While in Orwell’s original many of the peripheral characters remain nameless, here the masses are given both names and personalities, although some are only rapped out in cold and distant documentary-style titles as the body count mounts – first through battle and sacrifice and the later in the narrative’s rapid rattle through Stalin’s greatest hits from the great famine to the great purge.

Funny how history has a way of repeating itself.

Above; Barbara the chicken and friend with puppeteers Edie Edmundson and Darcey Collins. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

This humanising, for want of a better word, of the farm’s many inhabitants beyond the blindly faithful Boxer and cynically wise Benjamin (here, voiced by Harvey, he’s turned from Orwell’s original donkey to goat) makes it easier to empathise with their fate. Alas poor Harold the wood pigeon, Barbara the chicken, Geraldine the goose and Jeremy the pig.

Director Robert Icke, whose version of 1984 was a hit in the West End and on Broadway, drives the satirical story through 90 relentless, adrenaline and fury-filled minutes which cover, as the punchy surtitles tell us, ‘2,768 days since the revolution’.

It’s not for the faint-hearted – or for younger children I’d suggest.

What it is though is handsomely staged on Bunny Christie’s stark farm set, from the Rembrandt-like opening tableau of animals (atmospherically lit by Jon Clark) to the swirling mayhem of pitched battles to the distant sight of a miniature Boxer toiling relentlessly in the fields, all set against a stirring soundtrack of Russian composers who may, or may not, have survived the Zhdanov Decree. Four legs good, formulism bad.

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