‘Black Beauty’ review

Theatre, Children's
4 out of 5 stars
'Black Beauty' at Southbank Centre
'Black Beauty' at Southbank Centre

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Two pantomime horse-playing brothers recreate Anna Sewell’s animal rights classic in this idiosyncratic but faithful take on the novel

Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’ is not a cheerful story. Fires, animal cruelty, lingering death... Very unfestive. But this offbeat-but-faithful retelling, coming to the Southbank Centre from Scotland’s Traverse Theatre and Red Bridge Arts, is both absolutely delightful and guaranteed not to permanently traumatise young kids.

A battered copy of ‘Black Beauty’ falls into the hands of this show’s narrators, mischievous brothers Andy and Andy McCuddy, who retell its best bits using whatever horsey paraphernalia they have to hand. And they’ve got plenty. They’re ‘equestrian illusionists’ – or put less fancily, they’re a professional panto horse that’s near permanently ‘resting’. They’ve parked their horsebox/home in a motorway layby as they await a call from showbiz.

Played by adept physical comedians Paul Curley and John Currivan, these brothers, like kids, take an intense and careful pleasure in simple things. They revel in the theatricality of dishing out a meagre five Coco Pops into a chipped enamel bowl, or in putting on black welly boots to prance about like the maltreated-but-chirpy horses of Anna Sewell’s novel.

There are periodic nods to pantoland – plenty of characteristically equine side-eye is directed at their rival Daisy the Cow’s starring turns, and there’s the odd bit of ‘he’s behind you!’. But co-creators Andy Cannon, Andy Manley and Shona Reppe’s real focus is on storytelling, not spectacle. Black Beauty’s journey from foal to retiree is told faithfully, with the darker bits taken at a clip: the two ‘serious’ bits are standout moments, as they use ingenious combinations of sound and light to create a wood at night time, or the stable that catches fire.

‘Black Beauty’ wasn't written for kids: Sewell meant it to open adults’ eyes to animal mistreatment. That message of protest is muted here: this show probably won’t indoctrinate the next generation of Peta supporters. But what it is full of is the value of kindness and gentleness. Black Beauty might just be a collection of furry trousers and a stuffed head with long eyelashes, but he’s also a horse who brings these brothers together in a warm fug of love, both human and equine.

By: Alice Saville

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