Thursday, November 22, 2012


at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Farm Boy is Michael Morpurgo's sequel to War Horse, and tells the story of the boy who came back from the Great War, saved Joey from the horse butcher, and ploughed with horses until one May Day in Iddesleigh ...

Daniel Buckroyd's clever adaptation of this gentle tale is simply staged: a bare bulb, a chair, serving as horse and plough as well, and a vintage green Fordson tractor centre stage. It's a special tractor, this, tucked away at the back of Grandpa's barn. And it has a crucial role to play in this family saga, which covers almost a century, from young Albert lying about his age to follow his beloved horse to France, to his great-grandson taking over the running of the family farm.

Two actors share the story-telling. John Walters, with his kindly, lived-in countryman's face, is excellent as Grandpa, a contented sort of chap, but with melancholy moods. His grandson is played by Gareth Bennett-Ryan, who engagingly suggests boyish delight in the old stories, and fully convinces as the engineering student who takes a gap year in Australia before returning to his Devon roots.

They play all the other roles, too, notably "Father",who is Albert - Maisie, his wife, and Harry Medlicott, a rival farmer, a "puffed up sort of chap a bit full of himself", the original owner of the tractor.

Grandson teaches Grandpa his letters, as well as helping on the farm, so that the old man can read Tintin, Death on the Nile, Travels With a Donkey, Animal Farm. He writes too, laboriously, and his first composition tells the story of how his father came to win the tractor. As in War Horse, a ploughing challenge is involved, and the suspense and the reversals of fortune it entails make this the most exciting part of the sixty-five minute piece.

It's this story, in the old man's dialect voice, that travels with the boy to Australia, and re-reading it rekindles his love for the farm, a love that started as he sat as a child on the Fordson in the barn, and dreamed of ploughing, tilling and mowing.

This is a very different theatrical experience from War Horse. The relationship between boy and Grandpa, the emotional heart of the piece, is subtly drawn in this faithful adaptation, and Morpurgo's unrivalled skill as a storyteller, together with Matt Marks' original piano score, helped the actors hold the packed Mercury audience enthralled.

production photograph: Robert Day

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

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