REVIEW: 'Stimulating and engaging' first show back at Northampton's Royal & Derngate after more than a year

Sarah Becker headed to The Royal to catch the first show performed in the theatre since March 2020. Here's what she made of it...

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 10:02 am
Updated Thursday, 27th May 2021, 10:04 am
The National Youth Theatre performed Animal Farm as the first show to grace the theatre's stage for more than a year.
The National Youth Theatre performed Animal Farm as the first show to grace the theatre's stage for more than a year.

The first play to grace the Royal & Derngate theatre Northampton after 14 long months of closure, was a tale set in the dystopian world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

From the moment the curtain went up, the cast from the National Youth Theatre company delivered a visually stimulating and physical performance against a stark and minimalist set.

The novel, Animal Farm (first published in 1945), is a political allegory about revolution and power. Through the tale of a group of farm animals who overthrow the owner of the farm, Animal Farm explores themes of totalitarianism, the power of language and the corruption of ideals.

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The 16 strong cast put on quite the show.

In 2019, as the origins of this modern adaptation by Tatty Hennessy took place, Brexit was the main item on the political agenda. Roll on a year later and Britain was in the throes of a pandemic.

Political leaders overthrown by promises of a brave new Brexit world; snappy slogans delivered by social media - “Catch it, bin it, kill it.”, “Four legs good, two legs better.” Can we draw comparisons between Orwell’s allegory of the Russian Revolution and society today?

This Made in Northampton production directed by Ed Stambollouian certainly raised the question through a visual and physical piece of theatre.

The set was minimalistic and props used sparingly to create a harsh and bleak environment. Blood spattered butcher’s curtains and chains were the backdrop to evoke an image of a slaughterhouse.

Connor Crawford gave a menacingly good performance as a caricature of Farmer Jones. Full credit to him that he didn’t even have to speak. His screwed-up face (as if he was sucking on lemons) and loping gait as he stomped after the animals were captivating.

Fortunately, he managed to get back on stage several times (as well as in the guises of Farmer Pilkington and Minimus the Pig) to try and seize back power.

However the 16 strong cast held their own as they squawked, barked and whinnied throughout. The actors cleverly interpreted their animal characters through voice and movement. Boxer the horse, played by Will Atiomo, delivered a strong performance, promising to work harder every time something went wrong. Jack Mathew, as Napolean has great stage presence and clearly portrayed his character’s double standards.

Clara the chicken (played by NKhanise Phiri) delivered a quirky physical performance as she flapped, sqwarked and ultimately sacrificed herself for her comrades. It was refreshing to see women playing traditional male roles including Squealer the Pig, played by Matilda Rae, as a propaganda machine and Alexandra Hannant as Old Major.

Highlights were also when the animals came together en masse in the song and dance routines, from the rendition of ‘Beasts of England’ to the song of the seven commandments.

Improvements? For those not familiar with the novel, it took a little while to work out which character was which animal – would it have been clearer if some of the costumes had been more defined, or was this a deliberate costume choice to reflect the uniformity of communism? Would the production have benefitted from more song and dance numbers and fewer words? It’s a personal choice.

Overall a stimulating and visually engaging Made in Northampton production between the Royal and Derngate and the National Youth Theatre and a fantastic first show back at the Royal theatre after 14 months.

The NYT company will also be performing a modern day adaptation of the tale of Othello tackling themes of love, jealousy and racism set against the early 90’s rave scene. If you didn’t get a chance to see this production, it will be one to watch.

Othello will run from Tuesday May 25 to Saturday May 29, 2021.