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A CurtainUp Review
Farm Boy

The old green Fordson tractor tucked away at the back of my Grandpa’s barn. When I was very little, I used to come in here, pull off the cornsacks, climb up and drive it all over the farm. I’d be gone all morning sometimes, plowing or tilling or mowing. It didn’t matter to me that the engine didn’t work, that one of the iron wheels was missing, that I couldn’t even move the steering wheel. Up here on my tractor, I’m a farmer, like my Grandpa...—Grandson.
Farm Boy
John Walters
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
While Stephen Spielberg prepares to release a major film version of the Tony and Olivier Award winning World War I epic, War Horse, , the remarkable stage production is still a Broadway spellbinder. A few blocks away at 59E59 Theaters, the saga continues with Farm Boy, a far more low-keyed sequel in the Brits Off-Broadway Festival. This gentle two-hander, just over an hour in length, was cleverly adapted for the stage by director Daniel Buckroyd from Michael Morpurgo’s 1997 novel. It's paced smoothly and builds gradually to strike its own emotional chords.

Farm Boy takes place over the half-century after the Great War. It is set on a spare space with a 1920’s Fordson tractor sitting center stage. Farm life in the English countryside has changed. The key role of a farm horse was now as a tractor, a machine that has always fascinated this farm boy just as the horse, Joey, fascinated his great-grandfather, Albert.

Richard Pryal plays the grandson, a city lad, now an engineer, who loves the farm and enjoys an extraordinary relationship with his grandfather (John Walters). The elderly man loves his land with the swallows swooping down, and he loves to watch his television mysteries, particularly, Murder, She Wrote. The young man lovingly calls him a “grumpy old goat,” but has great fun sharing the old stories, told and retold over the years — stories about life on the farm, the family, and grandpa’s own father, Albert.

The tight relationship between grandson and grandfather is established through their shared stories about the war. The boy, who already knows the story well, and grandpa race around and climb over the tractor, replaying the war action, the sale of Joey to the infantry, and the rescue by Alber, his owner.

After the war, Joey and Albert returned to the farm. Albert married, had a son (grandpa), and worked the farm with the plow horses, Joey and Zoe. His health, however, had suffered in the war. A major anecdote reveals the reason for the tractor on stage. Albert got into an argument with a wealthy neighbor, Harvey Medlicott, over the usefulness of plowing the fields with Albert’s horses, versus the neighbor’s new tractor. Albert proudly stood by his horses. A competition between tractor and horses plowing furrows was set up on a frigid November day, with the winner getting Harvey’s tractor or Albert giving up 100 bales of hay. Admittedly, the end result is predictable but the tale is told with such narrative skill that several people in the audience broke into applause when the winner was announced.

In the play’s most touching moment Grandpa revealsy that he cannot read or write. His late wife had read to him every night and she took care of any writing necessities, and after she died the old man would have bouts of depression. He asks his grandson to teach him to read and write. The boy had planned to leave for Australia and college at the end of the year, but he reluctantly agrees to teach his grandfather over the summer since the old man insists he can learn. When it’s time for the boy to leave, grandpa gives him a few sheets of paper to read on the train. He has painstakingly written the tractor race story. This experience seals the bond between the two that will last even during their separation.

Richard Pryal compellingly portrays the engaging young man’s draw toward his grandfather and the farm life. He plays the grandson with an enthusiastic willingness to absorb the traditions. John Walters brings a crusty steadiness to grandpa that is enlivened as he shares memories with the boy. He persuasively shows the weakened Albert struggling to win the plowing race and he has a poignant moment as he pleads for his grandson to teach him to read and write, showing great pride he when he has learned.

As a visual focal point on stage, the life-sized tractor created by Tim Brierley and Susan Winter, is a constant reminder that change is inevitable but sharing family stories can forge an unbreakable connection between generations. With a few smoke effects, designer Mark Dymock’s effective flashes of battle lights, and Matt Marks’ original soundtrack, Farm Boy succeeds with well-crafted honesty, humor and its own emotional power.
Farm Boy
Book by Michael Morpurgo
Directed and adapted by Daniel Buckroyd
Cast: John Walters and Richard Pryal
Lighting Design: Mark Dymock
Original music: Matt Marks
Stage and Production Manager: Mandy Ivory-Castile
AEA Stage Manager: Amy Kaskeski
Tractor Construction: Tim Brierley
Tractor Painting: Susan Winters
Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59th St. between Madison and Park Ave.
Tickets: $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). (212) 279-4200 or
Performances: Tues.– 7:15 PM; Fri. at 8:15 PM; Sat. at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; Sun. at 3:15 PM & 7:15 PM. Holiday schedule from Dec. 20–Jan.1: Tue, Wed & Thu 7:15, Fri 8:15, Sat 2:15 & 7:15, Sun 3:15. There is an additional performance on Thur., Dec. 29 at 2:15
From 12/7/11; opening 12/13/11; closing 1/1/12
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 12/8/11
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