Alan Booty as Grandpa and Jonathan Houlston, on the Fordson tractor, as the Grandson. Pictures: Pamela Raith.

Farm Boy

Lichfield Garrick Studio


As reviewers we are well used to the big budget glitz and glitter and glamour that theatre can provide, but every so often along comes a sparkling gem of a production with no special effects or CGI, just a low key piece of theatre with nothing to hold an audience other than the ancient art of storytelling – and hold us it did.

Farm Boy is Michael Morpurgo’s sequel to his War Horse. Morpurgo does not do sequels but was inundated with inquiries about what happened to Joey, the war horse of the novel, so, in response, farm boy was born.

The story is told by Albert’s son, who we only ever know as Grandpa, and his great grandson, who visited the farm each summer – oh, and an old Fordson tractor in the barn, a catalytic anchor for the story.

A two hander with no props or effects demands performances to not just carry the story along but take the audience along with them and Alan Booty as Grandpa and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Jonathan Houlston as the Grandson don’t disappoint.

The play takes in some of Albert’s experiences in the war, Albert is only ever referred to as father by Grandpa, or Corporal as the villagers knew him, but concentrates more on the changes in both society and farming as progress dragged them into the modern world, kicking and screaming in some cases, with the horse and cart and plough horses giving way to motor cars and vans and tractors.

Progress for better or worse is still ploughing its furrow through farming, but that is another story.

In War Horse we had the dramatic scene of the bet involving the Narracotts with Joey tasked with pulling a plough and Farm Boy has its own bet, this time with the village's wealthy Harry Medlicott who reckons his gleaming new Fordson tractor can out plough Father’s plough horses, Joey and Zoey with ease.

With just a chair for a prop the pair did a remarkable job in building up the tension in the ploughing contest and even making it exciting.


Grandpa and Grandson bringing the past to life

That is the climax but the story touches on far more, such as Grandpa’s growing up in a farming community where harvest and chores came before school, a factor highlighted by the death of his wife, never ill in her life until the day she died, by his side.

Grandpa was illiterate, reading and writing something he hardly saw as necessary for farming in the 1920s and 30s. His wife had been teaching him to read when she died, which all added to his sense of loss.

His own story, written laboriously in pencil, and handed to his Grandson as part of a self-imposed wager, is more . . . much more than a mere story, it is a huge milestone in his life.

We learn of the Grandson’s family, his father who saw the countryside as a foreign land and a mother who never visited the family farm. We see the bond between Grandpa and Grandson, so different from that of father and son, and their passion for farming – Farm Boy could apply to either of them or indeed to Albert.

And we see the future of the farm and the new order – oh and the only special effect of the entire show is the realistic looking ancient Fordson tractor, restored by the Grandson and, sounding, at least, as if it is chugging into life with smoke rising from the exhaust pipe.

Fordson, incidentally, were made by Ford in the UK from 1920 and ceased production in Dagenham in 1964.

The play was written and directed by Lichfield Garrick’s artistic director Daniel Buckroyd back in 2008, touring rural primary schools, finding its way to mainstream theatres, going on to a sell out at the Edinburgh fringe and even a run off-Broadway in New York, again directed by Buckroyd.

With evocative music from Matt Marks, and an effective set from Fi Russell, this delightful revival will be going back to its roots with a tour of village halls taking it to places off the theatrical beaten track before a theatrical tour. To 10-03-24.

Roger Clarke


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