10 May 2022
ANIMAL FARM (Richmond Theatre) Review

The plot is the plot, so I’m not going to cover Orwell here.

Other than The Book of Dust, which had a couple of at-scale puppets, this was the first lifesize puppetry show for me.  War Horse was never my kind of thing, and I never got around to seeing “The Wilder Earth” whilst it was playing in London, so this was a very exciting outing.

To say that it didn’t disappoint would be a massive understatement.  The puppetry is unbelievable beginning to end.  Toby Olié (of War Horse fame) designed the farm animals to move just the way actual livestock does.  A lot of credit goes to the actors also, of course (as well as to Robert Icke for his direction) because all the movements were absolutely spot-on.  The cat was most certainly very “cat”.  It was a little comical that the hens had had their rear handles not at the tip of their tails (as I would’ve expected), but under them, which kind of made it looked like the actors had their hands up the hens’ bums.  But it was funny and cute, so it’s all good. The complexity of Clover the cow and Boxer the horse were unbelievable, especially Boxer (there is another horse, Molly, and her puppetry was brilliantly clever).  At first we only see a miniature version of him, and I genuinely thought that might be it.  When he eventually came out (took 3 puppeteers to navigate him), the whole audience gasped.  Every animal was an absolute marvel.

The “running commentary” on what’s happening is really clever and injects just the right mix of humour and horror into the play.  I am still undecided as to whether I liked the chase scenes.  Having complained recently that almost every chase seen I’d seen in the past few years had people running around on stage in a circle, it was nice to see something different.  But I also thought that the “miniature” chase chosen by Icke here had too much of a comedy factor to it.  The same mechanism was employed in Man in the White Suit and worked brilliantly there, but that was a comedy, of course.

Bunny Christie’s set was minimalistic and modular, which worked really well.  A lot of the choices in her costume design were an absolute stroke of genius.  The puppet part of the pigs and the dog made up about 3/4 of the body, with the hind legs and the bum taken up by an actor.  The slacks and the shoes worn by the actors matched the front legs of the puppets, which really made the latter look whole.  (That said, for the pigs, I was wishing for some kind of a wrap going side to side hiding the join between the actor and the puppet to make the gap less stark when they moved.)  The actors even had tails attached to their bums!  What disappointed me was that the slacks/shoes for the actor working the dog was the same as that for everyone else…  The dog was a grayish-blueish sheepdog, so the front of it was all wooly, as was the tail, but half the body and the hind legs made it look like the rear half of the dog was completely shaved following some accident or illness.  I found it really distracting when the dog was acting.

It’s worth noting that the actors on stage only man the animals and make animal noises.  The actual dialog is voiced by a different set of actors.  I couldn’t work out if the latter were in the wings, but speaking in real time, or if the voices were pre-recorded and simply played back.  If someone knows, please leave a comment to tell me.  The sound quality was mostly good throughout, but there were a couple of places where the words were too muffled and difficult to understand.

I didn’t get a programme, but had a look at the production website and was annoyed that the cast was simply listed by name without specifying who was who.  That is really disappointing, especially when it comes to the puppetry cast.

If you’re going to see just one puppetry show, this is the one.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £13.

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