A spellbinding and deeply moving tale of a boy and his horse, War Horse is a must-see for all ages that never ceases to captivate.
Having seen the original run of the multi award-winning War Horse, I wrongly assumed that its 10th Anniversary Tour would lose some of its impact. I’m thrilled to admit that I was wrong. From the instant that Bob Fox’s ‘Song Man’ strolled on stage and opened the play, I felt the same sense of wonder that I did ten years ago. Over 7 million people across the world have seen it during those ten years, and the copious awards that the show has collected would suggest that audiences on an international scale have continued to find War Horse thrilling and moving in equal measure.
Based on the book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford, War Horse follows Devon boy Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) as he is sent to France in search of his horse Joey, sold by his father at the start of the First World War. Joey is represented by a life-size puppet, beautifully constructed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones’ Handspring Puppet Company. The word ‘puppet’ often has gimmicky connotations, but the sheer artistry involved with constructing and operating the three-person, 42 kilo behemoths is an absolute triumph. The puppeteers succeed in giving the horse an unmistakably equine personality. Handspring have outdone themselves – in the interval, the main topic of conversation rippling through the audience was how easy it was to forget that Joey and his companion Topthorn were being operated by humans.
The ingenious staging never detracts from the impact of the puppetry, providing a stark background that alternates between a sunny Devon farm and a nightmarish landscape in the Somme. Rae Smith’s 25 metre Vorticism-inspired backdrop mimicking Lieutenant Nicholls’ (Ben Ingles) sketchbook provided context for the scenes playing out below it, and their decline from genteel depictions of the Devon countryside to spiky charcoal illustrations of the deadly Somme landscape added to the feeling of increasing dread and fear for Joey’s welfare. The production filled the Mayflower’s stage perfectly, and despite lacking room for the cast to move out into the audience (as was seen in the original Olivier Theatre setting), the production was managed beautifully for the available space.
The puppets may have been the draw for many audience members, but the real stars of the show came in human form. Ted Narracott (Gwilym Lloyd) and his wife Rose (Jo Castleton) embody the struggle of the farming community. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for alcoholic Ted, whose brother Arthur (William Ilkley) overshadowed him throughout his life. The stand-out performance for me came in the form of Friedrich Müller (Peter Becker), a kind-hearted German soldier whose longing to see his wife and daughter again forces him into deserting. I found it a shame that some of the German accents were difficult to decipher, making the beginning of the second act slightly confusing. However, I do appreciate the thought behind it – both sides can articulate their perspective on the war as the victims of ‘Kings and Kaisers’, making the story all the more moving.
Relief came in the unlikely form of a goose puppet, whose antics on the Narracott’s farm was a particular hit with the schoolchildren in the audience. Similarly, the juvenile jokes of the soldiers entertained all – particularly from David Taylor (Toyin Omari-Kinch), who provided a stirring reminder that the men who fought in the war were often little more than teenagers with a sense of humour to match. This resonated far more on stage than it did in the 2012 Steven Spielberg film, as the proximity of the audience to the action made the interactions between characters more intimate and poignant.
Despite the title of War Horse and the harrowing consequences of bringing animals into battle, the show carries with it an overwhelming message of peace. It demonstrates how the age-old friendship between horses and humans can transcend war and bring out the best in people, even during the hellish circumstances of the First World War.
War Horse runs until the 9th June at the Mayflower Theatre. Tickets are available here.