Based on the novel by George Orwell, adapted for the stage by Ian Wooldridge
Derby Theatre

George Orwell’s satirical novella Animal Farm has been popular for many years and in a 2016 poll it was ranked as the UK’s favourite book that was read at school. Hardly surprising, then, that adaptations are performed regularly on the stage.

There are at least four versions that are often trotted out including a solo show by Guy Masterson which played Wilton’s Music Hall in London earlier in 2024.

Derby audiences with a good memory might remember the city’s Playhouse presenting Sir Peter Hall’s adaptation in 2006. That featured a  cast of nine professional actors supported by 27 performers from Derby’s  community theatre.

Now Bolton’s Octagon Theatre has got together with Derby Theatre and Hull Truck to stage plays directed at a younger audience, with Animal Farm being the first offering.

Sam Black (Boxer), Polly Lister (Clover) and Samater Ahmed (Benjamin). Above: Polly Lister (Old Major) [images: Pamela Raith]

Ian Wooldridge’s take on the story has been around for more than 40 years and aims to remain faithful to Orwell’s original, retaining its affection for the animals and the incisiveness of its message. It’s certainly different and should get students thinking about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It’s also a timely revival: similarities to what happened to President Putin’s critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny are evident in Animal Farm as well as a resemblance to totalitarianism in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

In Iqbal Khan’s production the story is told by only six actors who each play multiple roles. Several of Orwell’s characters are omitted, meaning that some of the animals become narrators to fill in gaps in the story.

Not even the youngest members of the audience will have difficulty differentiating between the animals: the actors put on skeletal animal heads and cleverly replicate animal sounds.

Most impressive is Polly Lister who majestically portrays the wise boar Old Major and several other animals. Constantly moving, she portrays each animal’s characteristics to perfection.

Killian Macardle (Squealer), Ida Regan (Napoleon) and Samater Ahmed (Snowball)

Ida Regan is autocratic without being overbearing as Napoleon who leads the pigs after the revolt which sees the animals assume control of Manor Farm. Killian Macardle excels as enforcer Squealer. At the end the two of them adroitly appear on stilts to signify “four legs good, two legs better”.

Sam Black gains empathy as Boxer, the naïve, loyal horse whose answer to every problem is to work harder than ever. Samater Ahmed as Snowball who is outed as a traitor and Amy Drake as vain mare Mollie also throw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles.

While the cast buy in to the concept of this physical production, I have to agree with my colleague David Chadderton who saw the show at the Octagon Theatre that the script is quite wordy; there are times when you really have to concentrate to get the most out of it.

It’s definitely not a load of bull and the cast don’t make a pig’s ear of it. The reception at the end of Animal Farm showed that some of the audience were as happy as pigs in muck, although I felt it’s missing a little bit of animal magic.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website


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