REVIEW: Animal (Basement Theatre)

Review by Jess Macdonald

New voices, deserving to be herd

Described as a ‘superhero story inside a famous 20th century novella,’ Animal directors Harriett Maire and Arlo Green serve up a two-and-a-half-hour dinner where meat is firmly off the menu, but a plethora of hearty goodness takes its place.  

Animal Farm, written by George Orwell and published in 1945, is an allegory depicting events around the Russian Revolution of 1917. Audience members expect a story – retold by animal characters – which is rich in intrigue, betrayal and politics, but the Narrator (Mataara Stokes) swiftly informs us that today’s adaptation will veer from the original text. He swiftly establishes by show of hands that very few audience members know the novella well enough to mind, and the artistic licence gives way to a thoroughly inventive production.  

Around two dozen performers appear, moving sparse props around a stage adorned with burlap, boxes and brushes – farm equipment littered across black dirt. The use of masks, designed by Alexandra Andrews, is a visual delight and highlights well-considered body language, demonstrated as we meet a whole host of expressive and engaging characters: Brock, the ever so camp Cockerel (Josh Metcalfe) and his same-sex chicken companions Ruth and Sally (Emma Campbell and Layla Pitt); Molly, the show-pony (Brogan Wilkinson) and her brother Boxer (Dylan Thuraisingham), scornful over her latest prize; and the rebellion-instigating pigs – Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer (Rhema Sutherland, Tyler Kokiri Wilson, Bronwyn Ensor and Thomas Fink-Jensen respectively.) 

After a chicken struggles to produce eggs, a pacey narrative quickly develops and the animals band together to spare Ruth from the chopping block. Menacing Farmer Jones, played by director Arlo Green, is an unsettling force who commands the stage, and it’s easy to empathise with the barn animals. Talk of uprising spreads through the ranks after Old Major passes away, and a power struggle between the pigs soon results in Snowball’s death. Panicked, the Narrator is quick to remind us that Snowball doesn’t die in the original text – but it’s soon apparent that Orwell didn’t write about a turtle (Shaan Kesha) who becomes Teenage Mutant Ninja Raphael, either. 

Throughout the production, consistent humour helps to create empathy – from the delightfully flirtatious near-death fun between Kitty (Mirabai Pease) and Cockerel to the latest lyrical insights from rapping duo Wooliam and Beanie (Matiu Kereama and Muhammad Nasir). There are many similar scene-stealing examples to choose from – such as Potato (Fiona Armstrong) the chain-smoking cow’s Yorkshire profanity, in contrast with dignified Daisy (Christel Chapman) – and a surprising moment of audience participation in a fancy restaurant where a difficult decision decides the fate of characters and, interestingly, the latter part of the production.     

Humour becomes boundary-testing in the second act when Daisy befriends Potato and Acorn (India Ryan). As bestiality jokes seem to alienate some audience members, the strength in writing soon reappears provocatively within other themes – animal rights, climate change, and hierarchy amongst living things – notably within the concluding scene. 

As the programme outlined, Animal was indeed ambitious – utilising professional actors and upcoming talent – and I’m aware the final production was whittled down from a sizeable chunk of original material. What was eventually delivered to audiences was slick, cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable – full of invigorated performances and commitment. 

With such a large cast and crew, it is no surprise that performances were sold out to family and friends well in advance of opening night – but rightly so, as the production deserves to be seen and celebrated. For a reprisal, perhaps the directors could be even more ambitious, utilising the larger of two Basement spaces – and increasing the size of audience accordingly.

Animal played Basement Theatre 22-26 October.    

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