Going into Red Bridge and Traverse Theatre Company’s production of Black Beauty, I was somewhat apprehensive. The book and film were firm favourites of my childhood and I had a certain trepidation at the idea of a new, imaginative retelling of the story. True to my concerns, the story was manipulated almost beyond resemblance to the treasured tale I remembered. And yet, I found myself falling for it just as hard. This play was a warm-hearted and touching tribute to the much-loved story, but it was also a remarkably enjoyable new tale about the importance of family and not giving up on dreams.
There was plenty of ‘horsing around’ in the production, with a pantomime pony taking the stage by storm, and frequent but well-timed comic chase scenes. Andy and Andy, played by Paul Curley and John Currivan respectively (or was it the other way round?), were a likeable and engaging Tweedledee and Tweedledum double act, with their equestrian handshake and trotting practice being particularly well-received. The set was interesting and intricately detailed – down to a used teabag dangling from inside a spare tyre – and the sound effects were cleverly employed, with impeccable timing to match.
What was really wonderful about this show was its ability to reach an incredibly diverse audience. I was one of the only members of the audience in the 15-30 age bracket, but around me were parents, grandparents, and, constituting the majority of the audience, children of all ages. All of us were laughing, all were joining in when participation was called for, and all, I’ll wager, were enjoying ourselves hugely. I spoke to two fellow play-goers at the interval, a grandmother and granddaughter with 72 years between them; both of them, said the grandmother, had been “giggling the whole way through”.
The undeniably silly humour could have begun to grate on the mature members of the audience, but each time the cast wavered dangerously close to the irritating side of slapstick comedy, they pulled back in time. There were enough adult-level asides to keep the older viewers happy, and even when the humour was aimed at the lower end of the age scale, the child in all of us was happily engaged. At times, I did find myself rolling my eyes inwardly at the overly-sweet mantra of, “There’ll be good days, and there’ll be bad days, but at least you’ll always have each other,” but I’m sure the children went home with a positive motto lodged deep in their minds.
Aside from the occasional twee moment, the story was sweet and entertaining, and I left the theatre feeling uplifted and 15 years younger – I was tempted to join in with the children galloping in Black Beauty fashion around the foyer. My bias against a reimagining of the story had long paled; this play wasn’t trying to tell the same tale or even to tailor it to a comic production. Instead the company placed the old story in a new context, bringing it to life for a new generation, and allowing young and old to share in the enjoyment of interactive theatre.
I loved this show. Perhaps if I had been in a different mood, or the audience’s enthusiasm hadn’t been so contagious, it would have been less impressive, and I am therefore cynically holding back from a five star rating. However, positive mood or not, from a sceptical beginning, I enjoyed myself more than I have in a long time at a performance. I thoroughly recommend this family show to families – and individuals – of all ages. If I had the chance to see it again, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.
PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre