Glorious mud

THEATRE: Animal Farm The Young Vic, London
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The Independent Culture
The dirty-mac brigade is generally found at such sleazy enterprises as the grisly Voyeurz, but it's out in force at Animal Farm. Flanders and Swann are unlikely figures to spring to mind when watching George Orwell's famous anti-Stalinist satire, but Northern Stage's vigorous and invigorating production is a case of "mud, mud, glorious mud", and the Young Vic management wisely provides the front rows with protective macs, which, by the end of the evening, looked pretty well covered with the stuff.

An actress friend of mine announced beforehand that she had had enough of actors pretending to be animals, but she needn't have worried. Cats, it ain't. Director Alan Lyddiard brings on his seven-strong company dressed not in fake fur or Equus-style hooves and masks, but the clothes and rags of a group of travellers. As one of them begins to read aloud, they gradually slip into character as the animals of Manor Farm with nothing but an alert, stylised physicality and work boots on their hands to indicate their non- human state.

Orwell's story was rejected by four publishers but its publication in the month the war ended, when criticism of Russia became more palatable, could not have been more timely. With the air currently full of general- election talk about idealism, compromise and power, the timing in this touring production is similarly appropriate. Lyddiard and adaptor Ian Wooldridge compress Orwell's memorable 90-page journey from slavery to freedom and back to slavery into an action-packed 90 minutes. They have not, however, opted for dogged faithfulness, preferring to jettison detail in favour of bold theatrical imagery.

With such a strong cast - leaping, rolling and tumbling through the mud - the real stand-out is the designer Cath Hieatt. Bar the travellers' battered suitcases, some rope and a few scattered wooden pallets, there is nothing on the earth-covered set but a white enamel bath which is used as a trough in which to wash, play, fight and even drown as huge, vaulting arcs of water soar over the stage, the droplets transfixed in shafts of light.

Snowball, the pig modelled on Trotsky, dreams of building a windmill to create energy to "free us from our labours" and the company erect it before our eyes in a stunningly choreographed sequence.

Yet for all the bravura ensemble playing, the production doesn't quite sustain the energy and threat of its best moments. Younger audiences will be glued to its raw impact but physically this isn't in the same league as Theatre de Complicite's similarly earthy The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol. Nor does it have musical strengths, leaning too heavily on Test Department's industrial soundscape and some drab original music that is completely upstaged by the opening duet arrangement of "Jerusalem". None the less, Animal Farm made Orwell's name and for all its flaws, Northern Stage's admirable, heart-stop production deserves similar success.

To 3 May. Booking: 0171-928 6363