The thing about the 1877 novel Black Beauty is that, from contemporary lenses, it can seem sanctimonious or at least a little rigid. For instance, there’s a moral point made about resting horses by not taking them out of the stables on Sunday, even if it meant the horse-drawn hackney carriage drivers in London (the motorised hackney carriages of today are colloquially known as black cabs) lost money as a result. This theatrical adaptation is framed by ‘Equestrian Illusionists’, both called Andy McCuddy (Paul Curley and John Currivan) – a family tradition, apparently. Big Andy and Wee Andy are named for their dates of birth, and it is mildly amusing that Wee Andy is physically taller than Big Andy, although younger.
The duo are, put together, both halves of ‘Hamish’, a pantomime horse who is out of work because panto venues these days prefer to have stage cows. My companion asked me if I had ever seen a pantomime horse at a panto, and I had to confess I couldn’t specifically recall the last time I did. This being a seasonal run at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, the production indulges in a bit of call and response as though this were a panto. And why not? Even on press night a significant number of people in the audience were children. The show does well to maintain interest amongst adults and children alike, and while it’s true that I let out an audible groan at one point (fortunately for the production I can’t recall what the punchline in question was), the whole thing is rather dynamic.
With unemployment comes, arguably by definition, an increase in free time. It also means a (hopefully temporary) life of austerity, so Big Andy sets to work on getting together items that could feasibly be sold at a car boot sale. As possessions are rifled through, the pair come across a copy of Anna Sewell’s novel Black Beauty, and therefore pass the time for the rest of the day, and evening, and past bedtime, re-enacting the whole thing. Ridiculous? Well, yes, at face value – but also irresistibly charming.
Of course, disbelief is to be suspended at the theatre door, and as the show is just shy of 95 minutes including an interval, the audience is mercifully spared a page-by-page re-enactment of the book. A lot of the darker aspects of the book are, to be blunt, toned down, presumably to accentuate the more amusing aspects of this production. I did have an example of what I mean by this, but have decided against providing it here, as it would be giving too much away. Suffice to say that when Wee Andy is visibly upset about the seeming decline of Black Beauty, it’s quickly revealed that he makes a full recovery. It’s not the only time when good triumphs over evil remarkably speedily.
With so many children’s stories out there verging on the edge of sentimentality, the rapid pace and short, sharp approach of this one is refreshing, and kept the young minds engaged. There’s some sibling rivalry between the Andys, but their differences are swiftly settled by way of yet more storytelling. The final scene is quite ridiculous, but also demonstrative of how the show doesn’t take itself too seriously. The use of various props is simple but effective – and, above all, highly creative – the use of commonplace items like bags and gloves to help tell this story is impressive.
There is a wholly inconsequential bit of audience participation: it’s not like a horse drags anyone up on stage or anything of the sort. A real family treat, there’s a message of hopefulness and solidarity in these troubled times in which we live. A fun and uplifting production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
This children’s show retells the much-loved tale of a brave horse for ages five and over.
From the cosy horsebox they call home, Andy and Andy take the bit firmly between their teeth and tell the classic tale of Black Beauty as you’ve never seen it before.
Saddle up, jump on and gallop headlong into a story where loneliness gives way to hope, friends become heroes, and courage saves the day.
Blending storytelling, music and puppetry, this vibrant retelling of Black Beauty offers fun and adventure for fans of the book, lovers of the classic TV show and those brand new to the tale.
The show has garnered five-star reviews in The Guardian, The Stage, The Herald and The Edinburgh Guide, and four-star reviews in The Scotsman, The Independent, The Times and Broadway Baby.
Presented by Red Bridge Arts & Traverse Theatre Company. Created by Andy Manley, Andy Cannon and Shona Reppe. Supported by Creative Scotland. Image by Mihaela Bodlovic.
Winner of Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Best Production for Children and Young People and Best Design.
14 Dec 2019 – 5 Jan 2020
Approximate run time: 90 mins