Review by Harry Bower
Written in 1945, Animal Farm is probably one of the most regularly studied, watched, and staged pieces of art ever created. Students pick it apart every year in English or Media lessons; heck – even I studied it when I was at school *cough* a number of years ago. George Orwell, writing away at his desk during World War Two surely could not have foreseen that its themes and relevance would be so prominent in society eighty years later, particularly in his own country. Guy Masterson’s infectiously high energy one-man production removes all subtlety from such modern equivalence and leaves the audience in no doubt about its take home message.
First staged in 1994, Masterson’s adaptation, directed ably by Tony Boncza, takes place on a sparse Wilton’s Music Hall stage. An atmospherically lit podium is surrounded by abeautiful ancient façade, exposed wooden planks and an aged, dirty looking backdrop. Shy of finding an actual barn to perform in, it is the perfect setting. Over the course of two hours, the solo performer leaps between the two separate stage levels, impersonating the cast of beasts depicted in the classic tale, bringing to life exceptionally well-crafted personalities and characters. Each has their quirk, their own grotesque physicality, their accent. And each is immediately recognisable, which is down entirely to Masterson; the master storyteller at work.
It is exhausting and mesmerising to watch one man live and breathe a story which usually takes an entire class of English students to consume. Particularly impressive is how charming a performer he is, introducing himself and the show’s context to the audience and interacting with us throughout. If there are few moments on opening night in which his character work couldn’t keep up with his brain and he stumbles over his words; it’s simply because this production is so brilliantly frenetic it’s hard for even the audience to keep up. By his own admission, in his 60s – not that you could tell – Masterson didn’t expect to be performing his version of Animal Farmagain. When you pay close attention to his influence on the text and the socio-political context in the UK right now, it’s not hard to understand why he was tempted back in. This Animal Farm gets a modern paintbrush applied to its narrative.
Squealer becomes a more obvious pseudo political spin doctor, akin to Alastair Campbell, Craig Oliver, or Dominic Cummings. A thinly veiled comparison is drawn between the power-hungry self-serving pigs hoarding the harvest, and the current consecutive Conservative governments. Partygate, austerity, the fuel crisis, food banks, fake news and political slogans (“for the many not the few”) are directly integrated into this retelling. Even the illegal Iraq war isn’t safe from reference (“WMCs – weapons of mass castration”). That such references aren’t crowbarred and instead feel natural and obvious conclusions is both a credit to the writer and a reminder of the horror of our politics today.
Masterson’s retelling is witty, amusing, and entertaining. The key elements of the original text are still present. The important characters are accounted for. But here no time is spent attempting to include every single reference, nuance, and scene from Animal Farm of old. It is instantly recognisable and yet subtly refined in a tasteful and wholly appropriate way for a modern audience. Equally intelligently done is the use of sound effects, each crafted and recorded using the human voice, fired off at the perfect moment to layer the atmosphere of the piece and make it feel bigger in stature and impact than it otherwise would. Lighting plays a key role, including one of the best (and most simple) uses of lighting to portray an explosion I think I’ve ever seen.
For those studying Animal Farm in their GCSEs today, or whatever they’re called these days, this production is a must-see. It is an accessible and engaging way to both learn the age-old story of animalism and to analyse its themes and message. To those who think they have seen Animal Farmdone in every way possible but have never witnessed on of Masterson’s adaptations many runs over the past thirty years; get yourself down to Wilton’s and grab a ticket for one of the most well-rounded and well executed one-man shows you’re ever likely to watch.
Animal Farm plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until Saturday 27 January 2024. For more information and tickets visit https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/842-animal-farm
Photos by Peter Mould