MICHAEL MORPURGO'S FARM BOY
A Made in Colchester Production
at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub
This is the sequel to Morpurgo's phenomenal War Horse. It's a very different animal – a couple of actors, a costumed musician, and, centre stage “an old green Fordson”, the tractor which turns out to be at the heart of this story. But it succeeds on its own terms, since, as in War Horse, the author's skill as a story-teller carries the narrative, and keeps the audience enthralled.
This ingenious adaptation is by Daniel Buckroyd, now the Mercury's Artistic Director, and it was first seen here in 2012. This new production, directed by C P Hallam, has been touring local schools, with just one weekend on the Mercury main stage.
The two actors take the roles of Grandpa, who's actually the son of Albert from the earlier piece, and his grandson, who as a young child played at farming seated on the ancient tractor, and eventually takes over the farm. The relationship between the two is beautifully drawn – teasing, encouraging, and, in the play, unselfconsciously sharing all the other roles, including the Corporal, as the adult Albert is known in the village, the grandmother Maisie, and rival farmer Harry Medlicott.
The old man loves to remember, and loves to tell his stories. But illness and idleness have left him illiterate, and after his wife dies, he persuades the boy to teach him his letters. As a reward, his grandson gets £100 and a story, ten pages of painstakingly pencilled capital letters.
This story of the ploughing match, pitting horses against horse-power, is the thrilling climax of the piece. The staging is simple, stripped-back. The two horses are step-ladders, the cockerel a rubber glove, Medlicott's paunch the cushion from the tractor's seat. Ru Hamilton's music underpins the action beautifully – flute for the flight of the swallow, harp for midnight Christmas Eve – the old ballad Dives and Lazarus effectively quoted here and elsewhere. And for the competition on Candlelight Field, a cello, joined by a bucket for a drum, the jingle of the harness and percussion on the Fordson.
The two actors – Danny Childs as the boy, Gary Mackay as the old man – draw us in to the story, and seem to relish bringing the scenes to life. Nothing is over-stated. We use our imaginations as they use theirs – they talk of horses, and we see them. The old man speaks of death, as he recalls his father's terrible trauma in the trenches. The boy, who pulled the cornsacks off the old tractor at the back of the barn all those years ago, returns to the farm after college, and finally restores the Fordson, which triumphantly bursts into life as this lovely sixty-minute show ends.
It's good to be reminded of the power of words to carry a story; the magic of theatre does not have to rely on technical wizardry and special effects.
production photograph: Robert Day