Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor: Nick Stafford
Directors: Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris
Touring Director: Katie Henry
Reviewer: Matt Forrest
12 years on from its premiere at the National Theatre, residencies on the West End, Broadway and numerous national and international tours it would be no exaggeration to say that War Horse has become a theatrical institution, and on the basis of tonight’s performance you can undoubtedly see why. If ever a production exemplified the hard work, attention to detail, craft and most importantly love that goes into putting a theatrical show together then look no further than War Horse.
Telling the story of Devon farm hand, Albert Narracott (Scott Miller) and his bond with Joey, a foal Albert’s father Ted (Colin Conner) hastily buys at market. With time, patience and the forging of an unbreakable bond, Albert trains Joey to become of great use on the family’s farm. However, with the outbreak of war, Joey is sold to the war effort by Ted, seemingly ending the friendship between Albert and his now fully-grown colt.
With Joey out on the frontline somewhere in mainland Europe, Albert refuses to give up hope of being reunited with his beloved horse and a year later enlists in the army and so begins a journey that will see them both face great peril, adversity and will change the pair forever.
War Horse is a visual feast for the eyes: from the mesmerising puppet control of the Handspring Puppet Company right through to atmospheric, intense, video, lighting and sound design, this is a spectacle like no other. Every animal, which include Joey and other Horses right through to the family Goose are brought to life by an exceptionally talented group of puppeteers, giving them character and personality that is on par with their human counterparts. The attention to detail on each horse is extraordinary, and it’s to the credit of involved that you forget about the puppeteers and just savour the visual spectacle
There is very little in the way of actual physical set, which makes the stage seem huge. This works perfectly with the lighting, sound and video production to give the production an eerie, almost haunting quality to proceedings as we go deep into the black heart of no man’s land.
Despite its seemingly saccharine storyline, War Horse doesn’t hold back on the brutal nature of war. Much loved characters will come and go as we are fully exposed to the horrors of the frontline for not just our ‘Tommy’s’ but the serving horses too; we get the perspective of both Albert and Joey, which is as bleak as it is captivating.
The cast are at the top of their game: Miller gives a performance that really anchors the production, full of warmth and spirit, he is supported by a hard-working cast who are solid throughout. The production also have some musical interludes by Adrian Sutton and John Tams, sung by Ben Murray which are hauntingly beautiful, the songs are in that classic folk tradition and leave you wanting to hear more of what Murray could do with the songs of later day folk singers like John Martyn or Nick Drake.
This is a faultless, sublime production that illustrates carnage of the First World War, at the same time tapping into the childhood experience of caring for and looking after a family pet that we all have cherished memories of. Arguably Britain’s most famous horse, Red Rum, is buried a few miles away from the Empire Theatre at Aintree Racecourse…. well based on tonight’s show he may just have some competition for Britain’s most beloved horse, because War Horse is in town and is a spectacle you need to see!
Runs until 17 August 2019 | Image: Birgit-Ralf-Brinkhoff