The blockbuster adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is currently underway on the main stage of The Lowry. Attending a Studio version of another of his books at the same venue but with only a single performer feels, therefore, a bit like visiting a poorer relation. But Toro!Toro! does not need anyone’s pity.
Simon Reade’s adaptation retains the themes of the novel. A young boy gains life experience and survives trauma as a result of the emotional resilience he gains by bonding with an animal. During the Spanish Civil War, six-year-old Antonito vows to help Paco, the orphan bull he raised from birth, escape death in the bullfighting arena. When Antonito’s village is bombed he loses his family and, apparently, Paco. But later he hears the legend of The Black Phantom – a massive bull that is terrorising the invaders.
Philip Wilson’s clear and unfussy direction ensures that complex ideas are communicated with clarity and the production is varied and exciting. Using a child’s subjective point of view, Wilson convincingly brings to life a sun-baked village in which locals burst into song and matadors strut like conquerors. Impressively, Wilson shows both the majesty and the shocking brutality of bullfighting without passing judgement. Wilson exploits the benefits of having only a single performer to give a fast-moving production in which scene changes are achieved instantly.
Much of the atmosphere of the show comes from Alex Twiselton’s imaginative sound designs, which move the action from a peaceful village in which the only sound is chirping insects, to a war zone where airplanes roar overhead and bullets ricochet around the theatre.
Gary Turner convincingly enacts a whole range of characters. Heartbreakingly, he is able to catch both a child’s sense of wonder and of injustice and horror at the atrocities he witnesses. The range of Turner’s skill is not just vocal but also physical; his body language creates a superbly arrogant bullfighter striding around twirling his red cape and stamping his feet as if he owns the arena.
The main success of Toro!Toro! is, however, that the production not only draws the attention of the audience, it subtly compels them to contribute their imagination and so proves that, in theatre, lavish budgets are not always needed.
Toro!Toro! is at the Lowry until 22 November.
– Dave Cunningham