Purcell Room, Southbank
Reviewed – 18th December 2019
“This playful, inventive show simply serves to underline and encourage the gentle values of warmth and kindness we all too often forget to prize”
Written in 1877 by Anna Sewell, Black Beauty remains one of the best-loved children’s books in the English language, with numerous film, television and theatre adaptations to its name. It is a simple story, in which we follow Beauty – a black horse – from his young days as a foal to his old age, through his time spent with numerous different owners, some gentle and some cruel. There are moments of high drama, in which Beauty saves the day, but mostly it is a tale which illustrates the importance of love and kindness. This warm-hearted collaborative production, presented by Red Bridge Arts and Traverse Theatre Company, stays totally true to the tender spirit of the original, but frames it within the sweet and humorous tale of two orphaned Irish brothers, who perform together as a pantomime horse and are down on their luck. This framing device allows for some lovely silly moments, and also enables the use of a few well-chosen contemporary references, both of which serve to further connect the young audience to the central story.
Paul Curley and John Currivan are a charming duo and work beautifully together as the brothers, with understated but completely masterful physical comedy and story-telling skill throughout. Although the show takes a little while to get going, once they hit their stride the performers move things along at a good pace, and deftly engineer the emotional gear changes, from hilarity to moments of genuine pathos. The creative team (Andy Cannon, Andy Manley, Shona Reppe and Ian Cameron) clearly delight in theatre’s inventive possibilities, and the show is full of joyful ingenuity, giving the children watching plenty of stimulus to fire up their collective imagination. It was a pleasure to feel the youngsters being carried away into a world in which a wellington boot can be a horse, a net curtain can be a baby, and different characters can appear and disappear at the actual drop of a hat. These imaginative realms are also enabled by Dave Troutan’s wonderful sound design, and the simple but ingenious horsebox which serves as the set’s multi-purpose centrepiece. Both set and sound design are conceptually simple but expand outwards, beyond the literal, and so further draw us in to the show’s meta-reality.
This Black Beauty wears its theatrical artistry lightly. The creative telling of a story can easily come to obscure the essential quality of the story itself, but that is not the case here. This playful, inventive show simply serves to underline and encourage the gentle values of warmth and kindness we all too often forget to prize.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic
Purcell Room, Southbank until 5th January
Previously reviewed at this venue: