DramaReviewSouth West

War Horse – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo

Directors: Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

Reviewer: Kelyn Luther

This tenth-year anniversary tour coincides with the centenary year of the end of WWI, so it’s a poignant time see War Horse back in Plymouth again.

One of the National Theatre’s most successful productions, the play begins when farmer’s son Albert (Thomas Dennis) raises a young temperamental horse Joey, won as a bet by his drunken father Ted. Lured by money, Ted sells Joey to the army. Joey passes into many different hands including an artistic lieutenant, a German captain tempted by desertion and a young French girl. Leaving behind the small Devon village he lived in, Albert goes off to war in order to find his beloved Joey – will they ever be reunited?

The puppets, created by Handspring Puppet Company, are the stars of the show and they are what makes this production so powerful. The moment where Joey as a foal is replaced by adult Joey, is one of the most joyous moments of theatre. All of the puppets are vibrant and full of spirit, from Joey to the goose (a hilarious little scene stealer) to the emaciated horses broken by war. Toby Sedgwick’s ‘horse choreography’ subtly animates the animals – Joey’s personality can be conveyed with something as small as the twitching of an ear. These are definitely not pantomime-esque cows, but intricately designed puppets whose movement and sounds match that of their real counterpart. 

That’s not to discredit the actors in human roles. Thomas Dennis as Albert gives a relatable portrayal of the 16-year-old and it feels contemporary without being anachronistic or arch. You cannot help but empathise with his devotion to Joey and his struggles to adapt to army life. Convincingly evoking the period, Ben Ingles as artistic sketcher Lieutenant Nicholls is chipper and chivalrous.

One of the many impressive scenes in the show is the cavalry charge with all the majestic horse puppets. It is inventively staged, evoking the bucolic Devon village of Act 1 and the battlefields of France in Act 2. With no set other than the occasional door and projections onto the back screen to indicate time and place, War Horse opens the audience’s imagination through the inventive staging.

There are smaller more intimate moments, including the singer Bob Fox, whose songs comment on the action. These aren’t full-blown show-tunes, but simple folk songs that establish the feeling of place and time. The Year Turns Round Again and Only Remembered are both about the passing of time, from the duration of the war to the present day. They feel like authentic war anthems, co-written by John Tams, also responsible for the theme tune to Sharpe.

War Horse is suitable for everyone (although perhaps too distressing for the very young), however, there is a feeling that novelist Michael Morpurgo and adaptor Nick Stafford do not dumb down or sanitise the subject matter. Whilst some other works of art inspired by WW1 are sceptical or ironic towards the concept, Stafford’s adaptation shows the importance of personal honour and acts of kindness.

This anniversary tour proves that far from flogging a dead horse, there’s still life in this War Horse.

Runs until 15th September 2018, then touring | Image: contributed

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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