Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor: Nick Stafford
Director: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Reviewer: John Roberts
Almost 10 years to the day, War Horse gained its first preview at the National Theatre in London, however, the production almost never happened. The then artistic director of the National Theatre couldn’t see how an adaptation of a children’s book about a horse in World War One and to be replicated on stage by puppets could work. Well thankfully co-director Tom Morris could and he managed to persuade Hytner to give it a go. As it transpires it’s now the National Theatre’s most successful show ever.
Michael Morpurgo’s book as Hytner first queried may seem the wrong choice for a major family production – it is after all about war, and both Nick Stafford’s adaptation and indeed director’s Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris’ vision for the piece means that the horrors and the impact of fighting and war is never too far away. It’s this ability to not shy away from the truth and the awfulness of the situation that makes the production even stronger. Here, both Elliot and Morris have constructed a production that when it’s dark it’s very dark and when it’s light, you can’t help but laugh, this is a masterpiece in storytelling and still as strong now as it was nearly a decade ago.
Likewise, it would be all too easy to throw the success of the show over to Handspring Puppet Company for their amazingly complex yet hauntingly realistic designs for our equine protagonist Joey and friend Topthorn. Through detailed direction by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler the cast of over 24 actors (they share the role) truly bring the animals to life, from subtle nuanced twitches of the head, to the breathing and whimpers of the horses… this is first class acting at its best, but it’s the partnership with all other production aspects that makes War Horse such a sensational success.
Song has always played a major part in creating a sense of feeling on the stage and John Tams provoking folk music sung with delicate tones by Bob Fox help elevate scenes beautifully. Rae Smith’s set design and drawings provide a clever a simple but effective backdrop, never overdoing things, this is understated design and one that works in perfect harmony to the rest of the production. The atmosphere is ramped up to the hilt thanks to Paule Constable’s pin-sharp lighting design that bring penetrating shards of light to break the mist, creating a sinister shadowy playground for the proceedings.
A commanding performance from Thomas Dennis as young Albert Narracott ensures that we, the audience, are gripped by the tale. The chemistry between Albert and Joey is beautifully realised and tangible – you can’t help but be emotionally torn apart when these two are separated and their epic journeys prevail. Strong support comes from Jo Castleton as the put-upon mother Rose and Gwilym Lloyd plays the layabout father role to perfection. Peter Becker makes a commanding figure as German soldier Friedrich Müller – really bringing to the front that on both sides of the war, people get hurt and people didn’t want to fight. Perhaps the hardest role of the night goes to Elizabeth Stretton who plays young French girl Emilie – having a much older actress play the young girl is tricky to balance correctly but she does this with beautiful sensitivity – however, this reviewer remembers when the role was also portrayed as a puppet and can’t help feeling that something of the characters naivety and fragility is lost when played by an actor. Also look out for the scene-stealing Goose (Billy Irving) who never fails to bring laughter from the darkest of places.
War Horse is a rarity on the stage, a powerful production that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of its subject matter, one that doesn’t underplay things because of its target audience and one that remembers that the story shouldn’t be pushed aside for spectacle, as it celebrates its 10th Birthday tomorrow, one hopes that War Horse continues to enthral audiences across the world for another 10 (at least).
Runs until 2 December 2017 | Image: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff