Writer: Michael Morpurgo.
Adaptor: Nick Stafford
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Reviewer: Daryl Holden
What’s to be said about War Horse that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? One could spend quite a lot of time trying to nit-pick the show and still find nothing wrong with it. There’s a reason this production has received the critical acclaim it now enjoys. It is clear there has been a lot of care and attention put into every aspect of it, resulting in a performance that lives up to and indeed exceeds all expectations for those who witness it.
The story follows the tale of Joey, a stallion who is bought for a record price at the local village market. Despite his feeble frame, through the care of Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) we see him become a strong and useful member of the family farm. However, when the dawn of the First World War arises, Joey is recruited into the war effort and his time with Albert is cut short, and it is from here his story escalates in scope and tragedy.
The performances of the cast as a whole in this production are fantastic. Even with those who play two or more characters, each portrayal differs greatly from one another, helping the audience with their sense of immersion and letting the world appear more seamless. When this company act as an ensemble it is truly a remarkable sight, their cohesion and team work to create everything from busy markets to the frontlines of the Somme is one to be admired, and does not go unnoticed. However, it is not only when the stage is busy do we see the best performances. Our main characters such as Albert and his family, as well as a German officer who tries to shake his current predicament are expertly realised by their respective actors, and provide us with characters who we can relate and empathise with in their situations, and to be able to create that specific dynamic with an audience in no small feat.
However, while the performances of the actors are to be admired, it is the performances of the puppeteers and their respective puppets that deservedly steal the show in this production. We follow Joey through this story and sometimes empathise more with him than any other performance within the piece. It’s such an intricately designed puppet that has such an awe factor around it that when Joey “grows up” in a montage like scene, there are audible gasps of wonder from the audience. Joey would be nothing though, without his puppeteers. The team behind this, and indeed the other puppets such as horses, tanks, geese and soldiers within the piece are absolutely sublime in their work. With subtle head twitches to leg movements, it’s such a precise art that when they do their job correctly one even doesn’t even notice their presence on stage any more, seeing the puppet as a living, moving thing. It’s an odd sounding idea, but for those who have already seen the show it makes perfect sense.
In a way, this is an ode to the quality of design within the show. The puppets and set are beautifully crafted and designed, with each horse, doorway and even fencepost looking completely unique and lovingly made. Lighting aids the show hugely, ranging from almost pitch blacks to dazzling levels of lights and everything in between. Every scene has a different lighting state that determines the emotional intent and time of day, as well as having some extra effects thrown in for a more visual style of storytelling. The addition of a soundtrack that undercuts most of the scenes within the piece helps to add a layer of emotion on top of what we are already seeing, adding increased density to dramatic moments, while pulling tenderly at heartstrings at others, especially when the cast unite in song at the end of the piece. The use of projection in this production too is such a wonderful addition. A tear streaks along the back of the stage, projected with sketches of backdrops that help establish where and when we are, a tear that makes sense when it is cleverly woven into the story.
War Horse is a production that’s spoken about but has to be seen to truly experienced. The directors have created a theatrical spectacle that delivers on all aspects with superb acting and unbelievably skilful puppetry. From start to finish you’re taken on a visual and emotional rollercoaster as we follow this silent protagonist through his journey, and when our War Horse gets his standing ovation at the end, you know it’s well deserved.
Runs until 30 June 2018 | Image: Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff