Writer: Nick Stafford, from the book by Michael Morpurgo
Music: Adrian Sutton
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Since its opening at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre in 2007, War Horse, based on the book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, has leapt from strength to strength. A straightforward story told exceptionally well, it has garnered awards across the globe, including five Tony Awards for the Broadway production in 2011. This is its first UK tour.
At its heart the story, like all great stories, is simple. A captured hunter foal is sold at auction for a ridiculous price – because two feuding farming brothers, Arthur and Ted Narracott, each afraid of losing face, bid against each other. But this foal is no working horse and appears to be more a white elephant than any sort of investment. However, the love of and dedication of Ted’s son, Albert, tames the horse and a bond forms, much to the displeasure of his cousin, Billy. War breaks out and the recruiters come to the village. Ted, seeing a quick buck, reneges on a promise to Albert selling Joey as a cavalry officer’s mount to Lieutenant James Nicholls. Albert desperately wants to be with Joey but, at 16, is too young to join up. After a disastrous attack in France, Joey and his friend Topthorn are captured by the German army. Nicholls is killed and his sketchbook, complete with pictures of Joey, is sent to Albert. Horrified that Joey is now unprotected, Albert gallops to the recruiting office, lies about his age, joins up and sets off in search of Joey, who is having adventures of his own with a disillusioned German officer, and a French mother and daughter, Emilie.
The stage production, like the book, is fast moving with short scenes chasing each other quickly across the stage. The staging has to allow for this and the result is a visual spectacle. Across the top of the stage is a section of Nicholls’ sketch book on which are projected his sketches and other drawings that memorably set the scenes. The main area of the stage is empty, with simple pieces of scenery brought in and out with their own choreographed elegance so that scenes simply melt into each other. The lighting design is quite superb, focusing our attention but also, for example, generating the feeling of explosions at the Front. It is especially effective when old meets new as a coldly metallic tank storms past Joey and his German friend. Almost a cast member itself, Rae Smith’s design is simply breathtaking in its simplicity, functionality and impact.
Of course, War Horse is known for its use of puppetry, produced in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company. Never trying to pretend to be anything other than what they are, the life size puppets add an extra dimension as their operators define the very essence of organic equine motion: one might almost believe the faces change to express emotion. The acting abilities of the puppeteers are simply first rate and another foundation stone of this show’s success.
Then there are the human characters and their stories. Despite Morpurgo’s book being aimed at children, it does not shy away from the realities of the First World War and its impact on the men involved. They are casually killed: sent to their deaths by inadequate leadership as the nature of war rapidly changed. Others are forced to re-evaluate their beliefs. Children are traumatised by what they see. This is no easy ride. Yet it is also life affirming: there are enough moments that celebrate the positives of human nature that lift our spirits back up without any descent into mawkish sentimentality, a fine line to tread given that the story relies on some pretty unlikely coincidences. And there are moments of great humour, for example when British and Germans are able to co-operate to release Joey from barbed wire despite neither speaking the other’s language. Steven Hillman’s Ted is a picture perfect portrayal of a man uneasy with himself and full of bluster to compensate; Lee Armstrong’s Albert perfectly demonstrates the bond between man and beast; and Martin Wenner’s rendering of Friedrich, a man in conflict with himself, is especially memorable.
Unsurprisingly for a production of this quality, this run of War Horse is sold out. Nevertheless, if you can blag a return for this epic spectacle do so: you won’t regret it.
Runs until 9 November 2013
Picture: Ellie Kurttz