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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Olie’

I don’t think there’s been a stage adaptation of this George Orwell novella in London for thirty-eight years, when Peter Hall put it on in the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre. That was in 1984 – spooky! Orwell’s novel 1984 was last adapted for the stage, very successfully, just eight years ago by Robert Icke at the Almeida and on tour. He’s also responsible for this equally successful page to stage transfer. In the annals of theatre, there is pre-War Horse and post-War Horse. We’re well into the latter epoch, so the key to this one’s success is Toby Olie’s extraordinary puppetry.

Orwell’s allegorical fable is said to be inspired by the Russian revolution, where the push for equality ultimately results in dictatorship, still the case there more than a century later. At Manor Farm the animals, led by one of the pigs, Napoleon, successfully usurp Farmer Jones in their quest for freedom, happiness and equality, with seven commandments outlining their objectives and governing principles. Power of course corrupts and the pigs break them one by one, until Napoleon reinvents himself as a clone of Jones. More animals die in the post-revolutionary days than ever did during it.

The entire ‘cast’ of horses, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and geese, together with dogs, cats and birds, populate the virtually bare stage, expertly handled by fourteen puppeteers, a few of which also take acting roles. It’s performed at great pace, aided by corrugated iron screens which move from side to side. Electronic displays signpost the scenes, notably the weekly meetings which go from democratic debate and voting to autocratic declarations, tell us how much time has passed and somewhat macabrely announce each loss of life.

Given the number of children and young adults in the audience, it must be a set school text (given the contemporary parallels, surely the present government will stop this soon?!). The speed of the storytelling holds the attention of those in the video & social media age. It drives home Orwell’s satirical points brilliantly, without any heavy-handedness, with occasional black humour, veering to chilling at times.

This is a high quality, accessible work that is likely to provide a positive introduction to live theatre for young people, as well as reminding us all of the fine line between democracy and dictatorship. The visit to Richmond is over, but it can still be seen in Wolverhampton and Bromley.

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Victor Hugo was fond of outsiders, and the grinning man seems to be the hunchback’s lesser known brother. Written in 1869, it has subsequently been adapted as a film six times and for the stage four times, twice as a musical, like this new one from Bristol Old Vic. He may also be the inspiration for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Here the tale gets a suitably Gothic telling in a brilliant production by Tom Morris.

Set in 17th century England, young Gwynplaine’s mouth has been mutilated and now has a rather spooky perpetual grin. He rescues an infant girl when her mother is frozen to death and they are taken in by carnival proprietor Ursus, where Gwynplaine uses his misfortune to make his living in freak shows. The infant is named Dea and she’s blind. When she’s in her teens, they fall in love, but Gwynpaine is lured away to the royal court where he is destined to marry into royalty, but instead he returns to the carnival, which proves tragic.

Jon Bausor’s transformation of the problematic Trafalgar Studio I is terrific and his Gothic design and Jean Chan’s costumes combine to make a great look. Finn Caldwell & Toby Olie’s puppetry is highly effective, particularly Ursus’ pet wolf, where an actor seems to be a part of the animal. Tim Phillips & Mark Teitler’s music has a darkness to it and is unlike any other musical theatre score I’ve heard since The Tiger Lillies’ Shockheaded Peter almost 20 years ago. It’s a big book and Carl Grouse has done a fine job creating a much shorter, clear narrative.

Louis Maskell is excellent as Gwynpaine, though we never see his real face, and I loved Sanne Den Besten’s fragile, blind Dea. Their exit at the end took my breathe away. Julian Bleach as Barkilphedro and Sean Kingsley as Ursus are both outstanding and Mark Anderson brings a lighter touch to Dirry-Moir, the royal suitor Gwynpaine deposes.

It’s another breath of fresh air for the West End and I do hope it finds its audience there; on the night I went, they loved it, as did I.

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