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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Brighton Little open director Mimi Goddard’s production at BOAT, then move indoors at BLT for the second week in direct contrast to their usual practice of starting there. Goddard designs costumes and choreographs too alongside Alan Stewart. Set designer Steven Adams also lights the BLT’s interior in the second week and at BOAT it’s the ever-ready Beverley Grover during evening performances, operated by Chris Smith. One grey set of boxes constructed as a windmill specially designed by Tom Williams. Ella Turk-Thompson’s song arrangements are used throughout. Continues at Brighton Little Theatre August 14-18th.


Make Orwell Fiction again pleads one recent tweet. NVT’s 1984 and BLT’s When the Wind Blows both in the May Festival shows it hardly needs underlining. Not since the early 1980s have the times felt so dark, though far more unpredictable. In a time of Trump, Putin, Erdogan and a host of other would-be dictators in Europe and elsewhere, the genius of Animal Farm is partly in providing a blueprint that ever refreshes itself, out of the precise Soviet template it emerged from in 1945. But more than anything, it’s the greatest modern fable ever written.


Brighton Little open Mimi Goddard’s production at BOAT, then move indoors for the second week in direct contrast to their usual practice of starting there and taking two summer shows to BOAT as they did Sense and Sensibility less than a month ago.


It’s an inspired decision too. Normally BLT’s wondrous sets and intimacy just edge the BLT theatre ahead. Here though we get an outstanding set of performances, with a whole cast completely audible in the open air. That’s rare here. Adams’ set works BOAT’s space perfectly: naturalistic straw-strewn green oval skirted with chicken wire, farm implements with a few brown boxes packs a few surprises. Stage right but a little further up a comfy armchair and a drinks cabinet signify an farmhouse interior.


Nothing else is needed. Adams lights the BLT’s interior in the second week and here it’s the ever-ready Beverley Grover during evening performances operated by Chris Smith: even in matinees they’re on standby.


In the BLT studio production there’s blue, yellow and white spotlighting, notably pig Napoleon glowering at the top of the auditorium passing down through the huddled audience, encouraged as sheep to bleat ‘two legs baaad’. at certain more poignant moments too lighting fines down on two individuals.


Upstage Adams’ design sports one grey set of boxes constructed as a windmill specially designed by Tom Williams. Earthy-coloured fabrics break up the BOAT stage wall behind. Goddard supervises costumes, eventually farmhand garb for all animals with pork-pie and farmer tweeds for Dug Godfrey’s Mr Jones and later Mr Pilkington.


In BLT itself the same props and backcloths are concentrated with more hay, and upstage right a slightly more formal ‘home sweet home’ as a placard announces a small quarter for man and pig alone.


Goddard choreographs too alongside Alan Stewart and elicits a beautifully restrained yet evocative physical animalism: never overdone. And not a donkey’s ear in sight. It helps that several actors have played animals before, but excellence is uniform. That’s another constant along with vocals and movement. At a key point actors apply two black stripes to themselves. And they stroke the audience with encouraging participatory noises, from sing-along ‘Beasts of England’ to becoming sheep.


Ian Wooldridge’s adaptation follows in a line of versions that started early on (including a Disney cartoon as early as 1948, with a tacked-on happy ending). It’s clean, elegant and gets all the essentials in, with the use of George Orwell as narrator, in this case Steven Adams, which allows several pay-offs including the great final sentence.


Goddard’s sartorial wit is immediately apparent as Gerry Wicks’ stentorian Old Major. The Karl Marx/Lenin visionary old pig appears garbed in a major’s red uniform. He exhorts all animals to rise against their human tormentors. Wicks leads them in the ‘Beasts of England’ song (Ella Turk-Thompson’s arrangements throughout) and dies peacefully offstage. It’s the first of several disappearances.


Leigh Ward’s Napoleon a physically commanding then menacing character is dependant on strategist Snowball (a zeitgeist-sniffing Faye Woodbridge) to mastermind the first ousting of Mr Jones after a drunken perambulation. Godfrey is consummately befuddled, Ward exerts his inner dictator with a menacing hunch that inclines to a lowering threat. Much simmers in his physical crouch.


It’s too much for Claudia Fielding’s Mollie, the Russian émigré horse who bolts to congenial captivity elsewhere. Fielding’s appealing here in her toss and snort, quick to doubt and even quicker to see where she might end if she keeps her ribbons.


Indeed the whole ensemble’s active in responses from cowering to courageous, quivering to quickly aroused. It’s beautifully executed, animals vectoring behind the leaders, scattering, edging forward again. There’s a delight here you can tell will engage younger viewers who have this on their syllabus.


Woodbridge‘s actions as Snowball are more nimble, quickly appraising of Napoleon’s assumption of power, a constant sidelong look at being edged off it herself. There’s a threat of superior thinking, eloquent persuasion. Both Orwell and Wooldridge expose the pith of revolutionary disagreement in Ward and Woodbridge’s testy exchanges: the rise of Stalinist dictatorship through discounted voting; the animals’ bewildered response.


When Snowball flees and disappears it’s propagandist Squealer’s turn to become the de facto No. 2. Alan Stewart from the start fills his role with weasely Tory party alacrity; a privileged porker suavely explaining to other animals why the pigs are – as we know – becoming just that bit more equal. They have to eat all apples and milk, as it’s good or them though the detest it.


Stewart’s oleaginous persona is touched with Gove – and Mandelson too. This type infests political gatherings, talking of how the BBC should be privatised like Fox News. So their position now isn’t so far from the dictatorship they identify in the left.


It’s through Goveian Stewart we see education shift to simplicity too. The blackboard of Animal Farm’s seven golden rules subtly alters, the one-year pan to build the windmill snowball projected but Napoleon rejected now on course with Snowballs’ exit. But not for electrically heated stalls. The storytelling throughout is punctuated with querulous doubts and after a grimace, acceptance. And just in case…. we’re all sheep in the audience and are ‘encouraged’ to baa assent.


Another young porker, Keziah Israel, who plays a foal with winning childlikeness at the opening and end, becomes Minimus: taken by Napoleon for his pleasure, living it up on all things forbidden, part of the enforcement. Israel brightens small physical roles like these as well she has as larger parts elsewhere. And Alfie Moffitt’s Moses the raven is a superb piece of stalk-footed bird-acting, like John Cleese’s silly walk, the complicit Russian church who assures everyone of eternal rest to sweeten labour. Moffitt’s black-suited dog-collar act is part visionary charlatan, part parson. Yet being a bird he can vamoose.


The trio at the heart of this are Rob Punter’s sure-footed Boxer, the carthorse intent on working harder and never questioning anything till he can’t help it; the more querulous Turk-Thompson who arranges music, as cow Clover, voluble and afraid (perhaps a little too intensely in the Studio, though perfect for BOAT). Her final scenes are the most heartbreaking of all. And Diane Robinson’s impressively taciturn Benjamin the donkey who remembers everything, can see Boxer’s fate enshrined in writing and ever-scuffling, keeps her head down.


Acting between these three is … almost human. They’re the proletariat whose shrewdness and innocence alike places them in the same predicament. Punter plods his part with a hapless nobility. Turk-Thompson adds a fright and alarm to Clover’s anxiety. Robinson’s all scowl and shrug as she avoids giving her opinions to loose-tongued ingénues. Yet she does; and her alarm at the climax is as powerful in its understated way as Turk-Thompson’s.


The darkening counsel where simple wind damage is blamed o absent Snowball leads to one of Orwell’s quandaries: how get confessions? He solves this by suggesting mass hysteria amongst ducks and chickens, where was we know dogs are set on them. Here dogs bay offstage but there’s a different dispatch altogether for those suddenly queuing to plead guilty to non-existent crimes. That bit about ‘no animal shall kill another’? ‘Oh ‘without cause’ has appeared. Must’ve been there all along Boxer thinks.


There’s fine support from Suzanne Buist as a nervous Jessie, and sheer terror in the end from Kate Wildig’s Muriel and Nick Barber’s gormless Pincher. The end must be seen, where the company ensures the overwhelmingly satirical never overpowers pathos or visa-versa. It’s as menacing and stark a warning as ever.


It’s a fleet text too, under two hours with an interval: a swift and telling production that’s as sure-footed as one of Boxer’s hoofs yet delicate, quick-swerving on its feet. With memorable vocal projection and physical acting it’s a delight and enticement. This outstanding outdoor version feels special, but all this can be seen in compact space where no suddenly-uncertain weather cancels proceedings.


As Martin Seymour-Smith put it in his Guide to Twentieth Century World Literature, this fable and 1984 might just have prevented the very things they warn against.