Black Beauty

Traverse, Edinburgh

Mary Brennan

five stars

HARD times have just about taken the feet – or should that be hooves? – from under the McCuddy Brothers. Now Andy and Wee Andy are sharing more than a first name: they and the rackety horse box that houses Hamish are marooned on the Maybury Roundabout. Once they had a car, but it has been sold. Once they could afford to have hot water and a morning tea-bag each: neigh-ho, no more. With Daisy the Cow taking centre-stage all across the Pantosphere, there’s no call for a pantomime horse, not even one as prancey-dancey adorable as Hamish. Our Equine Illusionists (as the McCuddys proudly style themselves) are reduced to selling their possessions by the roadside, which is when they discover their late mother’s favourite book: Black Beauty. Whereupon two stories of resilience and courage in the face of adversity overlap, as the brothers re-enact key episodes from Anna Sewell’s abidingly popular 1877 novel.

In some hands/hooves, this to-ing and fro-ing would be akin to the Puissance Wall in a gymkhana. The creative team of devisers/performers Andy Cannon and Andy Manley with deviser/designer Shona Reppe not only leap every hurdle with ticklish wit, they saddle up a whole stable of inventive flourishes that make everyday objects -–especially boots and handbags – come alive as Beauty and his fellow horses. Inside the furry guise of Hamish, the duo of Andys are in splendid comedic fettle, but – as with Sewell’s often harrowing evocation of Beauty’s travails – there’s a strand of profoundly affecting pathos in the plight of these close-knit brothers. As poverty forces bitter choices, Cannon briskly acts the sensible, responsible one to Manley’s seemingly naive, child-like kid brother. If the trappings – design details, brilliant funny business – are a delight, it’s the cleverly-nuanced emotional heart of the piece that takes Black Beauty cantering an extra, impressive mile.