Review: War Horse at the National Theatre, London (4/11/11)

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Having read countless five-star reviews for War Horse, my hopes were high when I was finally able to see it at the National Theatre. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Based upon the novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a boy (Albert Narracott, played by Jack Monaghan), his horse (Joey, played by rotating actors controlling a puppet), and their lasting relationship through the First World War, highlighting the suffering of overlooked members of the military during battle and reminding us of the disruption the war brought to quiet, civilised communities. It is often forgotten that as late as WWI horse were still being used in battle, so the fact that the play involves horses and bayonets comes as a shock. Indeed, a million horses were shipped over to France for military purposes, with only 62,000 coming back home.

Upon entry into the auditorium, the stage was a great bare, dark expanse; the background a simple strip of what looked like torn paper, the reason for this to be revealed in the first act. The opening was incredibly moving, with cast members singing a lilting country ballad without backing. From then onwards, the emotional atmosphere did not fade throughout the entire production. The story begins with Joey as a foal being sold to a drunken farmer, progressing to show his growth into an adult horse whilst conveying his blossoming relationship with Albert, culminating with their gradual journey into battle.

Photograph by Simon Annand

The puppetry, provided by the Handspring Puppet Company, was the main attraction, the puppeteers perfecting the habits of a life-sized horse including the breathing, ear twitches and tail swishes. They were transfixing, and it was easy to forget that they were puppets. Comic relief in the form of a charismatic goose also allowed laughter in the midst of an emotional production.

The music heard in War Horse was fantastic, as was the acting. Nigel Betts as Arthur Narracott and Sargeant Thunder, and Jack Monaghan as Albert Narracott were particularly good. Saul Rose and Eliot Short, singer and fiddle player, brought the Devonshire atmosphere into the room with their haunting music and striking lyrics. I shall be listening to the soundtrack on repeat for weeks.

The play was all the more poignant with Armistice Day only a week later. The cast sold poppies at the end as we exited the building, which was a great idea and really made the whole performance all the more meaningful.

War Horse is being staged at the National Theatre, and has been adapted by Nick Stafford. With its striking visual effects, made all the more impressive with their simplicity, and the cast clearly relishing in all their roles, War Horse is not to be missed. Tickets have been keenly sought after for months on end, and it’s easy to see why.

 

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