THE key theme of George Orwell’s satirical novella, Animal Farm, is that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

In this new production touring at Bath’s Theatre Royal until Saturday (March 5) it seems just as relevant today as when it was written by the democratic socialist author back in 1945.

Orwell’s tale tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy.

Ultimately, the rebellion is betrayed, and the farm ends up in a state as bad as it was before, under the dictatorship of a huge pig named Napoleon.

According to Orwell, his story reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas 2 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

Given Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion into the neighbouring country of Ukraine, the timing of the Children’s Theatre Partnership production, in association with the Birmingham Rep, at the Theatre Royal this week couldn’t be more apt.

Adapted and directed by Robert Icke, this dark and brooding interpretation of Orwell’s classic brings to life the English GCSE set text through a 14-strong cast and extensive use of puppetry, large and small.

Even before the play starts, a farmer carries animal carcases across the stage, giving the audience, which included many young people, a foretaste of what is to come.

The main characters, the male pig Old Major, who instigates the revolution, and then the thuggish porkers Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer, are vividly brought to life, as they gradually change to resemble humans they once despised.

The gigantic heavy carthorse Boxer is portrayed as loyal, kind, dedicated, extremely strong, hard-working, although quite naive and gullible.

When Boxer is injured, Napoleon sells him to a local knackerman to buy himself whisky, and Squealer gives a moving account falsifying Boxer’s death.

The horse Mollie is portrayed as a self-centred, self-indulgent, and vain young white mare, quickly leaves the farm after the revolution, in a manner similar to those who left Russia after the fall of the Tsar Nicholas 2.

Clover, portrayed as a gentle, caring mare, shows concern especially for Boxer, who often pushes himself too hard. She can read all the letters of the alphabet but cannot “put words together”.

However, she quickly seems to catch on to the sly tricks and schemes set up by Napoleon and Squealer to make life for the pigs more comfortable as their status among the farm animals becomes more than equal.

Benjamin, the donkey, is portrayed as one of the oldest, wisest animals on the farm, and one of the few who can read properly. He is sceptical, temperamental and cynical: his most frequent remark is, “Life will go on as it has always gone on – that is, badly.”

Other animals on the farm include Moses the Raven, Muriel the goat, the sheep, cows, hens, rooster, ducks and geese, as well as Harold the pigeon, various dogs and a cat.

Icke has previously adapted Orwell’s 1984 and gives Animal Farm a fresh spark by focusing on the minutiae of puppetry movements, which are at times very imaginatively expressive of sentiment and emotion.

The production as a whole treads a fine line between light humour and dark horror as the tide turns for the farm animals and neighbouring farmers win back control in collaboration with the dictator Napoleon.

Icke brings Orwell’s original story vividly to life, while allowing the audience to draw their own comparisons to today’s political and social hypocrisy.

Puppetry designer and director Toby Olie’s work on the production is an absolute masterpiece of imaginative creation and invention, with the huge and awe-inspiring presence of Boxer dominating the set.

The control that the puppeteers have over their animals is imaginative and masterful with even the tiniest of movements acted out, while sound designer Tom Gibbons and lighting director Jon Clark heighten the tension and drama of scenes using musical motifs and flashing images.

Interestingly, while the actors and puppeteers on stage make animal sounds, the voices of the main characters were recorded by ten well-known actors, including Robert Glenister, David Rintoul and Juliet Stevenson.

This production is completely mesmerising and absolutely stunning. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before and it’s well worth a visit.