If you (or your teenage children) have never read Animal Farm, you could do worse than visit the Old Fire Station this week to absorb George Orwell's book through the current RAFTA production.
At the outset, the production appears to be targeted specifically at children: the stage is set with wooden cut-outs of animals like those in a child's Noah's Ark or a Christmas nativity crèche; the initial soundtrack is of those farm animal noises you get from up-ending a child's toy, followed by the lilting lullaby theme tune from Listen With Mother (you could hear adults throughout the audience recognising the tune from infancy, without being able to place it); the story is narrated throughout by a storyteller reading from a 'fairy-tale' book; and the overall feel of the production is reminiscent of a school nativity play. It all draws us reassuringly back in to an earlier time in our own lives, so we are prepared to look at Orwell's allegorical account of the Russian revolution and all its grim aftermath as history – which makes the unexpected ending, with a hard-hitting song highlighting the contemporary relevance for our own society and its future, all the more shocking and powerful.
Animal Farm is a particularly brave choice of play for an amateur group: it throws up so very many challenges. The RAF Theatrical Association has met these head on and worked hard on all aspects of the staging.
Costumes are one such challenge and an immense amount of thought and work has clearly gone into the making of them, including the manufacture of detailed individualised masks. Some of the costumes are fantastic: the chickens were lovely, with their huge feathery wings. The pigs in their hard-line smooth tight boiler-suits made a suitably striking contrast to the other animals' woolly softness, and I liked the contrast between the visionary Snowball's optimistic pink skin and the grim, grimy workman-like grey of Napoleon. The dogs, however, could be a bit darker and less furry.
Acting in character both as an animal and as an individual personality provides an extra challenge. The three pigs were superb in their roles as Snowball, Squealer and Napoleon, but from the start they were (appropriately) the least animalistic of the cast. The chickens maintained their squawking, pecking presence throughout and won the audience's hearts with their fierce devotion to their chicks and their desire to protect them. There was something very moving about this production: some of the older, careworn faces staring out from the kinds of animal costumes normally associated with children's nativity plays produced a striking image of the long-suffering populace, of a people for whom life has been and will always be a long hard struggle.
This production uses Sir Peter Hall's stage adaptation of Orwell's novel, with music and lyrics by Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell; it follows the original pretty faithfully. The first half is written fairly straightforwardly, but I found it rather odd and out of keeping in the second half when the characters occasionally started slipping into rhyming couplets or expressing themselves in song – until nearing the end, when there is a wonderful jarringly dissonant duet between Muriel the goat and Clover the horse, illustrating their puzzlement and perplexity at the situation they find themselves in, and then the shocking finale number, which elicited surprised and enthusiastic applause from an appreciative audience.