Introducing myself into reviews is something I try to avoid, but oddly I find it unavoidable in two successive reviews. In the case of Black Beauty, staged by PEEL Heritage for Broughton Open Air Festival, you must imagine an unprepared townie caught in an unexpected downpour, lacking the waterproofs, umbrellas, picnic baskets and chairs of the determined audience, though gaining some relief from a kindly-donated plastic poncho. When the interval arrived as late as 9.00 pm, with a near-60 mile return trip in prospect, I took the coward’s way out, but not before I had formed a very favourable impression of the venue, its compatibility with the production, the versatility and resilience of the cast – and the stoicism of the audience!
Anna Sewell’s autobiography of a horse emphasised the equine view of the world and made a successful case against cruelty to horses. James Stone’s adaptation preserves that attitude, but adds more human characters and human interaction. It can be sentimental and tends to anthropomorphism, but it is generally a clear straightforward reading, economical in style, though not in length which is more suited to a sunny afternoon with picnics than the reality of the first night. For the most part the modernisation works well, with effective new characters and nice touches of humour, but he conflates National Hunt and flat racing most confusingly!
It’s unfortunate that there are only four performances of Black Beauty at Broughton Hall (the last on 17 July) as it is so well tailored to the venue – further performances follow at Epsom Racecourse. Audience members set up camp in the walled garden of an estate full of characterful buildings and spaces, but are led to the stableyard for the arrival of Black Beauty at his most favoured home, then on to a lane where Beauty helps to save the life of his owner’s daughter by a headlong journey to the doctor. Cast members with very loud voices and unfailing good humour (even in the rain) marshal the audience and return everyone to the walled garden for pinot grigio and the main part of the play.
No great subtlety of characterisation is demanded, but the cast are rarely asked by director Chris Ford to overact or caricature, Jamie Alan Osborn’s entertaining Lord Falmouth an exception. The cast of ten perform wonders of transformation, Luke Coldham moving from head groom John Manly (one of the most fully rounded characters of the first half) to a neurotic Italian racehorse. Chloe Thorpe, whose Flora convinced me she was part of Anna Sewell’s original until I checked, changes sex to a jockey. Best of all in the first half is Gareth Ratcliffe: bluff, but kindly squire, aging ex-military stallion and innovative, bluntly Yorkshire trainer. The presentation of the horses is effective, with Austin Staton (Black Beauty), calm, well-disposed, well-spoken, over-shadowed by more eccentric “beasts”.
Bill Butcher’s set fits snugly into its sylvan setting and the music and sound effects are equally appropriate – a great show for a sunny summer’s afternoon!