Black Beauty

It’s a brave show which starts with the words: “I don’t like it.” It’s requires even more courage for a production, advertised as being “inspired” by the best-selling equine novel Black Beauty, to not even mention the title until well into the first half. Brave or, more accurately, confident; for this particular co-production between the Traverse and Red Bridge Arts is definitely sure of what it’s doing, and—for the most part—doing it extremely well.

Inventively and powerfully achieved, the pair utilise the full space of the Traverse theatre

This is hardly surprising; Andy Cannon, Andy Manley and Shona Reppe are among Scotland’s top theatre creators, especially when it comes to new work for children. Their particular take on Black Beauty begins with the story of the McCuddy brothers (played with exquisite timing and engaging freshness by Cannon and Manley), who are—like the performers—both named Andy. (“It’s a family thing,” we’re told.) Alas, “The Famous McCuddy Bros Equestrian Illusionists” are essentially on their last legs—having not found work for a year, the pair have already sold their car (which is why their petite horse box is now stuck by the side of the Maybury Roundabout, to the west of Edinburgh) and are trying to eke out a small box of cereal between them for a week. It’s not enough, though; further possessions have to be put on sale, including their late mother’s favourite novel—which is, of course, Black Beauty.

Stuck with nothing else to do, while waiting in hope for the one job-offering telephone call that will change their lives—sadly unlikely, as seemingly every panto in the land is looking for a pantomime cow—“young” Andy (Manley) insists that they begin to tell the story of Black Beauty, utilising a host of ordinary objects (including boots) as puppets to represent the main characters. Inventively and powerfully achieved, the pair utilise the full space of the Traverse theatre (including one middle row of the audience). Admittedly, Anna Sewell purists might well feel that this particular introduction to “the world of a horse” sands down most of the spikier moments of human cruelty featured in the novel. But then the real drama here comes from the ongoing stresses and strains that threaten to tear these two brothers apart, not least when the elder Andy (Cannon) begins to accept that “Nobody wants horses any more,” and that perhaps they should shut up shop for good. The titular Black Beauty, in many respects, is just the sideshow.

Given that the Traverse is a proper producing theatre, this show is definitely not a pantomime, but it nevertheless borrows many of its most successful elements, from a simple “Oh No It Isn’t/Oh Yes It Is” moment to much-anticipated repetition of actions—plus some full-on panto-horse dancing. This particular horse is apt, though; the real narrative here isn’t Sewell’s Black Beauty at all, but a touching, subtly performed tale of two brothers who are determined to keep going no matter what the world throws at them, and who should perhaps be given more room to tell that story instead.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

From the cosy horsebox they call home, Andy Manley and Andy Cannon take the bit firmly between their teeth and tell the classic tale of Black Beauty as you've never seen it before.

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