Writer: Nick Stafford from the original by Michael Morpurgo
Director: Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris
Movement: Toby Sedgwick
Reviewer: Neill Barston
From the moment the opening sequences of War Horse play out in a rural Devonshire field, this remarkable work of theatre remains truly captivating.
As its author Michael Morpurgo – who attended the Canterbury press night marking the 10th anniversary of its production, explains, he remains entirely grateful for its astonishing success over the past decade.
In his own words, “The National Theatre has turned my story into an anthem for peace,” which is as powerful a statement as you could hope to imagine for a stage show.
To date, it has been seen by more than seven million people around the world, and its anniversary tour starting in East Kent is perhaps all the more poignant for being 100 years on from major British operations in the Great War.
Basing a production on the premise of such a deep tragedy in which a staggering 10 million men and nearly a million horses were killed during the conflict, has no doubt been a herculean task.
But at its core, the central story of the bond between a young boy and his beloved horse Joey who are parted as the war begins, is one of hope and reconciliation that’s both incredibly powerful and exceptionally moving.
One of the National Theatre’s key successes with the show lies in its choreography, with the stunning horse puppetry designed by the Olivier-award winning South African partnership of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.
There are more than a few occasions that you would swear War Horse Joey and his other four-legged companions taking to the fields of Flanders are in fact real, such is the quality of their design and skilful operation.
During a recent interview, Kohler explained there had been a huge level of technical hurdles to overcome in the development of their centrepiece puppets, yet the team’s labour of love has paid off handsomely. It’s almost impossible not to be emotionally invested in this most moving of works.
While the puppetry stands out as truly exceptional, the same could easily be said for the performance of its human counterparts.
Thomas Dennis, as the teenage farm boy Albert Narracott who befriends the young colt Joey, delivers an equally compelling performance as he is thrust into the horrors of war.
Its scenes are interlinked neatly through interspersed folk songs through a lone song man, which further adds to its gripping atmosphere.
There are equally noteworthy appearances from Peter Becker, as the war-weary German officer Friedrich, seeking an escape from the death and destruction, and Joelle Brabban, as Emilie, who between them befriend Joey the War Horse after he falls into enemy hands after the death of the British army officer who had sworn to take care of him is killed in action.
To its credit, the production does not hold back from portraying the intensity of its setting, and there are plenty of dark edges to this ultimately uplifting play.
The action is gritty and at times disturbing, though its tight script is peppered with touches of humour that show that even amid the height of our own folly and bleakest of hours, the human spirit endures against the odds.
Everything from its brilliantly effective lighting and elegant hand-drawn graphic backdrops, through to the puppets that are at its centre, are quite remarkable.
This is a production of rare beauty, combining technical prowess with a soulful and timeless story that you could imagine will continue being performed around the globe for countless decades. A huge triumph.
Runs until 14 October 2017 then tour continues | Image: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff