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A timely reminder from the G&S Society

‘Animal Farm’, subtitled ‘A Fairy Story’, does not have a happy ending, and the stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic allegory of the Russian Revolution stays close to the original plot.
Ian Woolridge’s adaptation, directed by Matt McGowan and produced by Jane Vickers of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, is not the typical production local audiences have come to expect from G&S.
The stars of the show are the three pigs, Snowball, Napoleon and Squealer played by Jenny Burrell, Gary Skelton, and Rowan Vickers respectively and the old Clydesdale, Boxer, whose character was interpreted convincingly by Malachi Simmons.
Snowball’s idealism and bright optimism were conveyed effectively by Burrell, underscored by her higher female voice.
Though Skelton’s Napoleon was powerful and menacing, the impression I had from my reading of the novel was that Napoleon was more slick and calculating, his emphasis on ‘practicality’ laced with irony; and Vickers’ Squealer was more collaborator and less sycophant than I had imagined the character to be.
Simmons in his movements and mannerisms ably conveyed the plodding faithfulness of the loyal draft horse. Emma Keane also did a good job of interpreting the flighty filly, Mollie.
Taking a novel that spans many years and compressing it into two hours is no easy task, and the plot skims along quickly with the help of a narrator, a role shared very ably between Philip Mathias and India Wilson.
That said, the adaptation stays true to the original, and following the initial revolution there are the crises of the Battle of the Cowshed, when Farmer Jones and his allies are driven off the farm, the Battle of the Windmill when the animal’s windmill is destroyed, and the final reconciliation between pigs and men.
Perhaps because of the pace of the plot, there is no time to fully develop emotional peaks and troughs.
The Battle of the Cowshed, for example, is less epic than it seemed in the book, and there is no real sense of elation over the animals’ initial triumph or horror at the fate of the faithful farm horse, Boxer.
Except for Mollie’s solo, sung beautifully by Emma Keane, I’m also not entirely convinced the music adds much to the production.
The sombre themes of this dark tale of broken dreams and Machiavellian manipulation are emphasised by the sepia tones of the set, unrelieved by any colour even in the revolution’s hopeful spring when the farm animals are prospering. The opening scene is particularly powerful as the dark, empty set becomes more and more crowded with unkempt animals.
The minimal set of ladders and scaffolding is flexible, allowing swift set changes, and deftly recreates the farmyard, the heart of the story, where the animals gather to discuss the progress of their revolution.
The anthropomorphic costuming works well, with the possible exception of the dairy cows, though I had thought there might have been further change in the pigs’ attire as their status evolved.
The dogs, in their black uniforms and masks which obscured their individuality, made truly menacing Dobermans.
An interesting and thoughtful interpretation of Orwell’s tale, the G & S’s challenging production is a timely reminder of the human cost of autocracy and the danger of refusing, as Benjamin the donkey does, to stand up and speak out against tyranny and injustice.

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