Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor: Nick Stafford
Original Music: Adrian Sutton
Songmaker: John Tams
Director :Alex Sims
Reviewer: Mel Duncan
Earning a well deserved reputation as a must-see piece of theatre, and having allowed over 5 million individuals the privilege of the experience (half of the number of the fighting force lost worldwide in the conflict depicted), WarHorse is a prolific piece of theatre. The National Theatre’s production is so intricate that one wonders whether such a piece would become merely a ghost of its former self when sent out on tour. Luckily, this has certainly proven a false concern.
War Horse is a tale of boy (Albert) and horse (Joey) cruelly separated by the First World War, and follows their adventures through the bleak fields of France and Belgium. Morpurgo’s carefully crafted story is beautiful in its own right, but Nick Stafford’s thoughtful adaptation and pacing adds pathos and brings the emotional elements of the story to a new level.
Joey may not be as eloquent a name as his previous literary equine counterparts such as Black Beauty, or even his companion Topthorne, but this creature lives in the heart of every person who has devoured Michael Morpurgo’s wonderful novel, seen the 2011 film, or encountered him previously on stage.
Handspring Puppet Company, under the direction of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler truly bring this proud and noble creature to life, and all twelve of the performers work tirelessly and flawlessly as a team to capture the essence of Joey. The heads – Thomas Gilbey, Richard Vorster and Peter Twose were particularly wonderful- such a difficult position to be in, extremely exposed while operating Joey’s head. However their physicality took on such an equine form, even when not in motion, that they become an emotional front for Joey, enhancing the beautiful movement of the puppet, made possible by the clever design of Jones and Kohler.
Topthorne, a taller horse than Joey provides a huge challenge to the hearts in particular. Joe Darke, John Leader and Tom Norman rise to the challenge superbly, and literally. Crows, swallows and other horses assist these two puppets beautifully as the story unfolds, and Joseph Richardson’s delightful cheeky and selfish goose provides a welcome foil to the noble Joey.
A performance of this calibre cannot rely on puppets alone. Lee Armstrong has the unenviable task of making an audience engage and empathise with Albert Narracott as much as they do Joey. He is simply spectacular. A generous, aware and subtle performer, he is every inch the brilliant boy depicted by Morpurgo in his novel. Real life depictions rarely live up to their literary description, but here is the exception to the rule. Karen Henthorn skillfully creates the buffer between father and son that only a mother can as Rose Narracott, an interesting and difficult character. Lieutenant Nicholls, a true gentleman, has an impressive presence on stage, provided by Matt Addis.
The ethereal presence of Bob Fox provides a welcome sense of relief but also a touch of fear. His rich, sorrowful voice is the welcome at home, being truly so at the opening and ending of our journey, but also follows the action through to the theatre of war, a haunting reminder of where these boys and horses should be. John Tams’ wonderful songwriting sits beautifully in Fox’s voice.
Nothing is left to chance in the design of this production. Rae Smith’s sparse set allows for a plethora of puppet and prop possibilities. Simple framed doors and windows move seamlessly blending into the projected images above to create new vistas. The projected images are a clever touch, all coming from the sketchbook of Lieutenant Nicholls. Carts and tanks and arenas and trenches weave seamlessly – created by a mixture of people, wood, and puppets. Deceptively simple – the mark of brilliance evident in the obtrusive and flawless motion, the audience’s focus led by Paule Constable’s clever and subtle lighting.
Hot on the heels of an extremely successful run at The Lowry in Salford, the technical team must have worked incessantly since the move to put all of this impressive spectacle in place. The National Theatre is synonymous with excellence, and this touring production of War Horse does not disappoint.
Runs until 11th October | Photo: Brinkhoff-Mögenburg