George Orwell’s classic fable is brought to the stage, adapted and directed by Robert Icke. The only human character is that of The Farmer – ruddy face, flat cap and wellingtons – who first appears carrying a number of pig carcasses across the stage. The tall outer walls of the farm (Set and Costume design by the award winning Bunny Christie) resemble those of a prison camp with the animals, whose futures are clearly apparent in the farmer’s bloodied apron, securely residing on the other side.
All other characters are the animals which are brought to life by Puppetry Designer and Director Toby Olié’s life-size puppets, handled by a versatile ensemble of fourteen puppeteer-actors.
We hear from Old Major – a pig with a dream – in the first of many regular animal meetings convened in the barn. He explains his vision for a revolutionary future where animals will manage their own affairs free of the exploitation of the Farmer and where all animals will be equal. The animals bleat, grunt, and moo their approval.
With the death of Major soon after, the revolution is triggered, and an exhilarating scene follows as the animals drive out the Farmer to a symphonic soundtrack (Sound Designer and Music Tom Gibbons), using slow-motion cinematic elements to enhance the drama. The movement of the puppets is enthralling to watch as the birds peck, the dog bites, the goat butts, and the pigs charge their way to victory.
The next scene shows the newly liberated animals hard at work bringing in the harvest. The stage is stripped bare to the back wall with effective use of cross lighting (Lighting Designer Jon Clark). With electronic surtitles informing us of the movement of time, the pigs begin to dominate, and Napoleon rises as the pig in charge. His gruff voice and no-nonsense approach show us he is a pig not to be argued with and when he lurches forward in anger, he appears to break free from his own handlers. Sheer puppetry genius.
No animal works harder than Boxer the cart horse. Two metres in height, his puppet takes three handlers to manipulate, and we believe firmly in his weight and his strength. One of the finest scenes is his struggle to continue as weariness overwhelms him and he falls slowly to the ground. The collapse of Boxer is perfectly executed and surprisingly moving.
Bit by bit, the perfection of the revolution is corrupted until by the end no animal can remember Old Major’s dream – “All animals are equal” – but only Napoleon’s revised version: “…but some animals are more equal than others”.
In the brief ninety minutes’ duration of this production, Orwell’s warning about the corruption of power is there to be heard but it is the ingenuity of the puppetry that will be remembered. From the gossiping chickens to Clover’s frolicking calf – always asking questions – to the grotesqueness of the pigs learning to stand on two legs, this production is a wonderful introduction to the world of theatre.
“the beauty of this musical (a real showcase of some of Sondheim’s finest numbers) is that the songs do not eclipse the characters”
A lot has been made of the gender swapping element of Marianne Elliott’s ground breaking production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”. By his own admission, Sondheim was initially unsure that he wanted it to happen. His reservations were understandable: all too often you see theatre where the protagonist has been made female and it doesn’t always work. It is to Elliott’s credit that he was persuaded to allow it (such was Sondheim’s faith in her) and the result is a brilliantly up to date reimagining of the work.
It seems that few alterations have been made to George Furth’s book. There are the obvious pronoun substitutions and lyrical changes, yet it is a seamless transformation – it is easy to forget that this version isn’t how it was originally written. Although it is radical, it doesn’t feel it. It feels natural and poignantly relevant, which is the ultimate compliment. Leave any preconceptions and debate at the door and just revel in the astonishing gorgeousness of this production.
In the absence of any real plot it relies on the sharp dialogue and characterisation and, of course, Sondheim’s inimitable score. Each song is a vignette – a stand-alone moment, but wedded to the narrative and given a sparkle of confetti by Bunny Christie’s ingenious ‘Alice in Wonderland’ design.
Rosalie Craig plays Bobbie, the single, independent woman, as a bewildered onlooker; surveying the inexplicable bargaining, bickering, compromises, trade-offs, understandings and misunderstandings of her friends’ marriages. She perfectly treads the path from amused derision through to a longing to be part of this weird world of wedded ‘bliss’. The dichotomy is heightened coming from the perspective of a woman aware of her biological clock ticking away on her thirty-fifth birthday. There is a spellbinding routine where Liam Steel’s choreography has four identically dressed versions of Bobbie appear to her in a dream as spirits of her future self; stuck in a clockwork loop of morose matrimony and motherhood. Craig gives a performance that will surely make her a West End fixture for quite some time.
But she is in good company. It is a show full of star turns. Jonathan Bailey showers the audience with the impossibly quick-fire lyrics of “Getting Married Today” with the lung capacity of a free-diver. George Blagden, Richard Fleeshman and Matthew Seadon-Young, as Bobbie’s three potential boyfriends offer a gloriously fresh take on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”. Patti Lupone’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” is an unforgettable cry of self-deprecatory discontent. But the beauty of this musical (a real showcase of some of Sondheim’s finest numbers) is that the songs do not eclipse the characters. Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes as the abstemious argumentative couple in denial, Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell as the happily divorced couple, Jennifer Saayeng and Richard Henders as the doped-up, straight-laced couple are all hilarious yet touching (my word count is cautioning me to be self-editing here). The entire piece comes with an immense sense of fun, without losing any of the emotive power. Craig’s solos; “Someone Is Waiting”, “Marry Me a Little” and, of course “Being Alive”, are achingly pure and heartfelt.
The friends that surround Bobbie repeatedly urge her to find somebody who will take care of her. “But who will I take of?” she responds. I think it’s safe to say that the success of this show is well and truly taken care of. I hope nothing is booked into the Gielgud Theatre for the foreseeable future.
Craig’s Bobbie bookends many of the scenes with the simple, singular word ‘Wow’. I left the theatre with the same word resounding in my head. Sondheim’s musical and Elliott’s production is a perfect match.