Every once in a while there comes along a production which is talked about, given all the hype, and become 'that show that everyone must see' almost over night. This happened way back in 2007 when the original production of War Horse hit the National Theatre's stage in London. Since then, the play has gone on to become one of the most sought after tickets for any play. Unfortunately I missed it when it toured to The Lowry the last twice, and so I was overjoyed when given the opportunity to see the show there this evening.
I now can fully understand the show's longevity, appeal and hype. This is not your normal, run-of-the-mill show, this is indeed something quite special. I am a rather critical (perhaps too critical) reviewer, and do not find it easy to praise - especially when it is praise of the highest order; however, with War Horse it was simply impossible to find any flaw in this magnificent production.
The story, adapted beautifully from Michael Morpurgo's novel by Nick Stafford, tells of a young lad growing up on a Devonshire farm in a small backwater in 1912. His father is given to drinking, boasting and betting and one day comes home with a stallion foal which he bought, purely out of spite, at auction for the princely sum of 39 guineas. In order for the young lad to keep the horse, he needs to train it to pull a plough in just one week, or his family stand to loose not just the horse but a further 39 guineas too. It is a racing stallion and strong, but not built for labour; but through sheer love of the creature and perseverance, he wins the bet. It is now August 5th 1914 and the bells toll out across the countryside. Britain is at war with Germany.
His father sells the horse to the local recruitment drive, and so Albert (the boy) must say goodbye to Joey (the stallion). Albert being only 16 and too young to be recruited. The kindly Major Nicholls, also from the village, takes charge of Joey promising to take good care of him, and so off he goes to France and the front line.
To not give any more of the plot away, but simply to say that by the end of the story in November 1918, both Joey and Albert return home to their farm, both wounded, both weary, but both heroes. The play, as the title might suggest, isn't really about the humans, it is Joey's story.
If you have not yet seen these incredible 'puppets', created by Handspring Puppet Company, then you truly are missing out. These are not puppets in any conventional sense of the word at all, but living, breathing, thinking puppets with emotions and feelings. There are two main horses, which are a framework of a life-size horse, and manipulated by three humans who are 'invisible'. There is also Joey as a foal, a goose, and several other less important animals. they are all impeccably designed and we buy-in to them completely. They are not puppets, they are real. the skill and attention to detail, the nuances and attitudes of these creatures replicated truthfully.
The set, an almost bare stage with just the minimal number of props to complete the picture.. a door frame, a window, a cart, and 4 long poles used creatively. Atop this, the piece of paper torn from Nicholls' sketch pad, upon which the scenes are 'sketched' as we go along. This idea and its execution was a stoke of genius. Combine this with the lighting, sound and choreography, larger and excellently devised prop items for the war scenes, and the effects created throughout are faultless in both their simplicity and beauty. [although 'beauty' isn't perhaps the right word since they show the horrors and stark realities of WW1].
Combine all of this with a story-telling minstrel who sings the narrative (Bob Fox) and an ensemble of excellent performers directed skilfully and truthfully by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; giving the play just the right balance of comedy, pathos, realism and tragedy. It is a large cast, and even then, many of them multi-role, and it would be unfair of me to single anyone out over anyone else - suffice to say that there simply was not one even slightly weaker link in this solid chain of talented actors and actresses. Although it would also be slightly mean of me if I didn't mention Thomas Dennis' Albert Narracott. Growing from an impressionable and somewhat naive young teenager to a weary war veteran with simple aplomb.
But it is the two horses Joey and Topthorn and their 'handlers' who truly make this piece of theatre exceptional.
An astonishing and unique piece of theatre. And one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13/6/18
on - 13/6/18