Animal Farm review – Hull Truck Theatre ★★★☆☆

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Adapted for the stage by Ian Wooldridge from George Orwell’s famous novella, Animal Farm arrives at Hull Truck Theatre in a co-production with Octagon Theatre Bolton and Derby Theatre under the direction of Iqbal Khan.

Following a call-to-arms from an ageing sow, Old Major (Polly Lister), shortly before her death, the animals of Manor Farm revolt and overthrow the inept, alcoholic farmer Mr Jones under the leadership of young pigs Snowball (Samater Ahmed) and Napoleon (Ida Regan). With the humans gone, the pigs take leadership of the farm, renaming it Animal Farm and imposing Animalism, an ideology developed by the pig Squealer (Killian Macardle) from the lessons of Old Major and distilled into seven commandments including “No animal shall sleep in a bed,” “No animal shall drink alcohol” and the most important, “All animals are equal.”

The cast of six plays the entirety of the farm’s animals, embodying the animal’s movements and capturing the whines and grunts within Wooldridge’s text. The performances are strong throughout the cast, most notably in the heartbreaking performance by Sam Black as the easily led workhorse Boxer, but they do find themselves somewhat constrained by the need to stay true to the whinnying and grunting.

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Whereas Robert Icke’s 2022 adaptation of Animal Farm saw life-size puppets take the stage, here costume designer Su Newell provides head-pieces to indicate which animal an actor is taking on. Ciarán Bagnall’s set suggests the harshness of industrial farming – surveillance cameras hang from the roof above a killing floor and the barns are constructed of corrugated iron.

While Orwell’s allegory for the Russian Revolution and the formation and cementation of the Soviet Union is obvious in the revered Marx-like Old Major who finds their teachings bent to another purpose, the Stalin-like Napoleon ruling with an iron fist and the exiled and vilified Trotsky-esque Snowball, there are modern parallels to modern-day Russia, where Putin has been anointed leader in much the same way Napoleon is here, and to the West where Trump embodies the pig’s double-speak.

Despite capturing the pigs’ journey from revolution to power-grabbing rule in a pacy two hours, Khan fumbles a little for an ending to match the book’s power. The set of surveillance cameras ripped down during the revolt is recast as the humans who visit the farm at the play’s conclusion to toast the new allegiance between the pigs and the humans as the pigs betray the final ideals of Animalism.

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

While the pigs have lost their animal grunts, adopting the human accent of the upper middle classes, the image of the security cameras alongside the now two-legged pigs doesn’t feel much like indistinguishable groups the other animals see through the farmhouse window. This disparity between the two groups removes the finale’s impact.

Lost too is the power in the earlier reveal of the revised ‘All animals are equal’ commandment. A sheet, attached to the corrugated iron where the commandments are written, with the addendum ‘but some are more equal than others’ completely obscures the words ‘are equal’ on the original so that the new commandment incorrectly reads ‘All animals but some are more equal than others.’ Despite these things, the power of Orwell’s story shines through in Wooldridge’s adaptation, reminding us of the danger of unchecked authority on a populace.

Animal Farm is at Hull Truck Theatre until 13 April 2024