Actors slog through muddied earth, cooling their faces in an old bath full of dirty water. Black boots on their hands make them creatures of four legs. Good. Ian Wooldridge's 100-minute adaptation of Animal Farm (Northern Stage, tour) brings theatrical flair and real-life gutsiness to the intelligence of Orwell's parable. Stylistically, Alan Lyddiard's production has its roots in the work of several European ensembles, our own Complicite and Wooldridge's own Edinburgh Merlin productions of a few years back but it works well through a mix of big staging sequences, building and destroying the windmill, for example, and sections leaving the seven excellent performers to create intensity.
Moments suddenly emerge, like the shooting of Boxer, or simultaneous scenes counterpoint one another, as when the Animal Farm rules (chalked on the back wall) are changed even as the innocent animals try to hold on to them as guides to living. David Whitaker's dangerous Napoleon, using the cadences of reason to mask illogicalities, lopes around like a rough cast of pig, Stalin and Richard III. A human frame of suitcase bearers trudging over the stage relates the story to the migrants whose existence is a key theme of Nineties culture.
Hamlet (Oxford Stage Company, tour) goes young in the casting of lan Pepperell's Prince. The result is urgency - increased now there is only one interval. The loss is flexibility of verse speaking. But John Retallack's fine record in Oxford Shakespeare holds up, not least because of a fine Claudius, smooth and plausible in a non-oily manner, and particularly an excellent Polonius from Colin George, who shows how the character can be at once fussy courtier and sinister presence.
All's Well That Ends Well (Royal Exchange) follows last year's Southampton production in its Fifties setting - the last time women as meek as Helena were credible heroine material. Trevyn McDowell is potentially fine, her fair hair and complexion initially bound in black dress and shoes. By the end, via her male disguise, she literally wears the trousers and a light top more in harmony with her own appearance. She has found herself, as well as Bertram.
David Bark-Jones manages to make him a worthy consort for this spirited female, also realising values better than the class and military ones which have been so shown up in Alastair Galbraith's Parolles. If only director Matthew Lloyd had not opted for the most overwrought Seventies RSC verse-handling style this might be very good. Worst afflicted is James Smith's King of whom one pleads, most un-Bottom-like, please don't let him roar again.
Two shows from Chichester tour. Turgenev's Fortune's Fool is a find, with Alan Bates as the harmless man who starts letting his opponents retake a chess move and ends up thrown out by the family when he makes the false move of revealing he is the heiress's real father. Despite some West End playing of the worst type, tension builds thrillingly, helped by the beastly social lion of Desmond Barritt's lordly neighbour.
Patricia Routledge holds the stage alone as Beatrix Potter in lakeland age, first at 60, then 70. The show's device, whereby this self-isolating lady starts chatting pleasurably to us, is dated and unconvincing and Routledge's Potter is far more amiable than the figure in Eric Pringle's play on the writer. Still, if Potterstown means cosy corner to anyone, they'll like this predictably well acted show.
Who'll like Theatre Sans Frontieres's Le Moulin Magique (tour) I don't know - though I certainly did. The reason for being unsure is whether the story, of a miller ground down by lack of wind and a tax-greedy Baron being helped by wind and rain spirits, aims at the same age as the simple French in which the play is performed, Still, there are lots of visual clues and excellent acting.
The musical Shakers (Hull Truck, tour) seems downbeat by contrast with its aggressively charactered parent; feeble music, weaker lyrics, desultory overall. So, surprisingly, is On Yer Bike (NTC, tour) in which writer Stewart Howson is uncharacteristically clumsy and witless. Nor does Ayckbourn's 1982 comedy thriller It Could Be Any One of Us (Chichester Minerva October 2-19) compare well with his more purposeful use of the genres in Communicating Doors.
Dealer's Choice (RNT, tour) is a safer bet; Patrick Marber's play about the necessities and obsessions of gambling mixes bright one-liners with firm characters and story and is finely acted. For the young, Open Hand's touring Monster and Frog Mind the Baby would have best been left on Rose Impey's pages, but Norwich Puppet Theatre's brief Snow White is simply and beautifully told.
Worth seeing too is Chris Harris, whose tour includes a new one-man show, Beemaster.