Black Beauty @ Traverse

Review by Jonny Sweet | 06 Dec 2016

Though Anna Sewell’s bestselling novel Black Beauty teaches moral lessons about empathy, compassion and respect and finishes on a positive note, much of the story is shrouded in sadness. At times a lament to the inhumanity of the human race towards animals, the novel might be uplifting and life-affirming, but it’s also dark and sobering.

Translating that sombre story onto the stage would be a tricky feat for anyone, but to do so as the Christmas family production at the Traverse theatre is even more onerous. How do Andy Manley, Andy Cannon and Shona Reppe achieve their task? Simple: by shifting focus away from the story itself and onto Andy and Andy McCuddy, two brothers whose equestrian illusionist business is going down the pan.

With pantomime horses so last year, the pair have been reduced to rationing a mini-pack of Coco Pops for a whole week and selling all of their worldly possessions (including their mother’s favourite book, Black Beauty) out of their trailer, which has become marooned on Maybury Junction on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Sound ridiculous? It is, but the childlike charm of the two Andys and their superb chemistry together provides an artful method of framing the production and ensuring the tone stays light enough for a younger audience throughout.

Not that the play is all sunshine and roses from start to finish. Though the darker scenes in the source material are largely glossed over, there is an undercurrent of sadness to the impoverished plight of the brothers and their pathetic situation. However, superb use of props to retell the tale, along with great comic timing from both and emotive facial expressions from Manley in particular keep the tone light enough even in its darker moments, while the zaniness of the ending finishes the play on a suitably high note.

As the children in the audience amply proved, this modern take on the classic will literally have younger attendees rolling in the aisles with laughter and delight. The company’s decision to shy away from its weightier themes and treat the production with kid gloves means that adults won’t be nearly so engaged, but it’s still an innovative and enjoyable adaptation of a much-loved yarn.