Who would have thought that a show about a horse's perspective on the Great War would be such a hit. Still going strong after 10 years, War Horse continues to dazzle its audiences with its ground-breaking puppetry and emotive storyline. Having heard repeatedly that 'the puppets are amazing' I was delighted to have the opportunity to see it last night at the New Theatre with an excitable audience of all ages.
War Horse is the story of Joey the horse and his owner Albert, their separation and subsequently their experiences of the fighting in the First World War. By its very nature, a play focusing on the First World War will be bleak and saddening. Upon Joey's arrival in France, the terrifying skeleton-like injured soldiers heading back to England brought home the realities of war early on in the production. Thankfully, comic relief in the form of a persistent goose (operated by Billy Irving), cheeky chappy David Taylor (Toyin Omari-Kinch) and Sergeant Thunder, who used the phrase 'f-ing' more times in the space of two minutes than Gordon Ramsay, provided excellent light relief, making the tragic scenes which followed all the more devastating.
Albert (played by Thomas Dennis) seemed more at home at war, heroic even, compared with the Albert of the book, which for me made him less sympathetic as a character. That being said, his scene with Emilie (beautifully performed by Joelle Brabban) was heartbreaking, showing the damaging effects of war on the young men fighting. I particularly enjoyed the fantastic performance given by Peter Becker as Friedrich Muller, a disillusioned and psychologically damaged captain in the German army. The company as a whole did an excellent job, making transitions between scenes appear seamless and keeping the energy high throughout the performance. My only criticism would be the inaccuracy of the accents, particularly the English regional dialects - including a cockney/Devon hybrid - as they were distracting as we tried to work out where they were suppose to be from.
Let's be honest, everyone goes to see War Horse because of the outstanding puppetry. Created by Handspring Puppet Company, the puppets are astonishingly life-like and realistic in their movement, behaviour and in the noises they make. To reiterate what everyone who has seen the show says, you are utterly transfixed by them and are unable to see the puppeteers. The puppeteers are so skilled and disciplined; they are the secret stars of the performance. This is the strength of the show - as my companion commented "You don't really need the actors, you just focus on the horses,". I hope this will inspire future theatre makers to continue to experiment with puppetry and draw on its potential for a modern audience.
The lighting and special effects were brilliant, really heightening the tension at crucial moments, especially when the troops went 'over the top' into no-mans land, immersing the audience in the horrors of the conflict. The setting and date is displayed in charcoal drawings by a screen fashioned to look like a strip of ripped paper which is simplistic and effective and leaves the stage free for movement. The use of music was good; Song Man Bob Fox's rich voice singing of the loves and losses of the young men of England was very moving.
Michael Morpurgo describes the story as "an anthem for peace" and I would wholeheartedly agree with him. War Horse is not only a visually spectacular production with impressive puppetry; it's the story of a generation of young men and horses on both sides broken by a needless war.