TOBY Olié is no stranger to changing audiences’ perceptions as to what is possible in the theatre.

He was after all an integral part of War Horse, playing/operating the hind quarters of Joey the central character and then the head in the original West End production.

That was a show which made directors and audiences alike think differently about how puppets could be used in a production.

And next week, the most radical expression of that arrives at The Lowry with a new version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which puppets truly take centre stage - there are no ‘human’ characters.


Tobie Olie puppetry designer and director Animal Farm (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

Tobie Olie puppetry designer and director Animal Farm (Picture: Manuel Harlan)


“It is genuinely exciting,” said Toby who is both puppet designer and director. “War Horse certainly changed the way audiences regarded puppets. They invested in the character and when Joey walked, they believed in that character on stage.

“What is so interesting about Animal Farm is being able to develop that and get an audience to invest in a whole cast so that they care about these animals throughout the show.”

It has taken Toby and his team eight-and-a-half months to create more than 30 life-sized puppets for the show. Some such as Boxer the cart horse require three puppeteers to operate while other smaller animals need just a single puppeteer.

An added challenge in the production has been the dialogue. With no real life actors to hold the story together, the animals themselves need to ‘speak’.

“We did number of workshops very specifically on how they could talk; how we’d use technology and how much the puppets themselves would suggest talking through movement,” said Toby. “I think we’ve landed on a really exciting language that allows the audience to feel like they are hearing a translation of the animals’ voices so you are getting a combination of hearing the voices in conjunction with what the puppeteers are doing.

“It allows the audience to feel as though they have a translating set of headphones that allows them to hear what the animals are saying.”

For all the astonishing puppetry, Animal Farm remains a hard-hitting and, at times, brutal story. It’s the story of revolution, when the animals take over the farm and start to run the farm for themselves.


Snowball (puppeteers Elisa De Grey and Matt Tait) and Napoleon (puppeteers Ben Thompson and Michael Jean-Marain) (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

Snowball (puppeteers Elisa De Grey and Matt Tait) and Napoleon (puppeteers Ben Thompson and Michael Jean-Marain) (Picture: Manuel Harlan)


Initially Orwell’s interpretation of the Russian Revolution, the parallels with what’s happening in the world today aren’t lost on Toby.

“There is definitely an added resonance given the recent developments around the world,” he said. “It is such a relevant production.”

Toby credits much of the show’s undoubted impact to the work on the puppeteers on stage.

“Only a handful of our cast would say they are a puppeteer by trade. Many of them trained primarily as actors, dancers, even stilt walkers – they’re from all corners of the industry. I wanted a big mix of ages, experience and skill sets when casting the show,” he said.

Toby’s fascination with puppets began at an early age watching shows like Sesame Street on TV. He was the only student on the puppetry degree course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama before joining War Horse.

“I think I’m always trying to reclaim the word ‘puppet’,” he said. “It’s important for me that when you watch the show you feel like they could do anything. I don’t really want an audience to see the limits of that character. You want them to feel through the movement of the puppet that it can do anything its real counterpart can do.”

Animal Farm is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from Tuesday, March 22 to Saturday, March 26. Details from It is then at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool from Tuesday, April 19 to Saturday, April 23. Details from