Alice Barclay, James Barriscale, Michael Brett, Simon Bubb, Matthew Burgess, Finn Caldwell, Laura Cubitt, David Emmings, Robert Emms, Tim van Eyken, Bronagh Gallagher, Robin Guiver, Kit Harington, Stephen Harper, Bettrys Jones, Gareth Kennerley, Jane Leaney, Rachel Leonard, Tim Lewis, Colin Mace, Al Nedjari, Luke Norris, Patrick O’Kane, Toby Olie, Nicholas Tizzard, Matthew Spencer, Howard Ward, Alan Williams, Roger Wilson
Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
War Horse is proving to have real staying power. After rave reviews for its first run as the family Christmas show in 2007, the National Theatre brought it back a year later for another sell-out, and now it has jumped into the New London Theatre.
This open auditorium ensures the transfer from the Olivier thrust stage is relatively seamless.
Michael Morpurgo’s epic children’s story of horses and humans caught up in the horrors of the First World War, skilfully adapted by Nick Stafford, still packs a powerful punch.
Although full of dark deeds, there is also much poignancy and some humour in Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s highly engaging and dynamic production, which appeals to young people and adults alike.
The tale revolves around the relationship between Albert Narracott, a lonely boy from rural Devon, and his much-loved hunting horse Joey, whom he follows to France when Joey is taken to the warfront.
Although mainly seen from the viewpoint of horses brilliantly embodied by Handspring Puppet Company which provides a different slant on the cruelty and suffering of the Great War, there is still a real sense of the massive waste of human life.
The conflict actually starts back in the Devon scenes, which despite moments of lyrical beauty, is far from being a rustic idyll. Joey is bought in an auction by Albert’s father Ted to stop Albert’s uncle Arthur buying it for his son Billy sibling rivalry not love is the motive. This family feud continues when Joey is forced to become a plough horse to win a bet between the two brothers. Already there is a strong feeling of the horse being exploited and abused for human gain, but this is merely a pale presage to the nightmare of war when Joey crosses the Channel as part of the cavalry division.
The scene where Joey and another horse Topthorn (with whom he has bonded after initial competition) are the only survivors of a cavalry charge mown down by German machine guns is terrifyingly well done. Taken by the enemy they are first treated with kindness and used by the ambulance corps but then are harnessed to the back-breaking task of pulling guns in the artillery. After a frightening confrontation with a tank, Joey ends up alone in no man’s land caught in the barbed wire, while Albert is temporarily blinded by poison gas, so a reunion seems further away than ever.
The great thing about Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler’s puppet representation of the horses, which are each manipulated by three handlers, and of Toby Sedgwick’s outstanding choreography, is that it does not try to disguise the fact that these are man-made contraptions but conveys wonderfully the feelings of the horses with the tilting of the head or the shaking of the body their equine essence not the surface reality.
Rae Smith’s evocative design changes from a naturalistic backdrop of the pretty English countryside to explosive Vorticist spirals of the Western front, while the video projections of Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer complement the live action battle scenes superbly and Paule Constable’s lighting captures shifts in mood. Christopher Shutt’s sound forcefully re-creates the aural landscape of war, Adrian Sutton’s music ranges from pastoral to dissonant and the intermittent folk songs performed by John Tamms act as a commentary on the action.
While the staging itself is what impresses the most, there are strong performances from Kit Harington as the lonely but defiant Albert who has bonded with Joey more than with any human, Colin Mace as the embittered binge-drinking Ted and Bronagh Gallagher as his long-suffering peacemaker wife Rose, Alan Williams as the obstinate Arthur, Robert Emms as the hapless Billy and Patrick O’Kane as the good German Friedrich Mller who sacrifices his own life for the horses.
Although the show sometimes veers into anthropomorphic sentimentality, this is counterbalanced by a genuine feeling of the tragic side of life. And sometimes it seems, ironically, that men’s humanity is shown in their compassion for animals rather than each other. A truly moving experience, War Horsegallops into the West End with the assurance of a true thoroughbred.