War Horse

Adapted by Nick Stafford from a novel by Michael Murpurgo

National Theatre

Liverpool Empire

From 16 November 2017 to 02 December 2017

Review by David Sedgwick

Poignancy is already in the air during the first weeks of November, time of Remembrance and poppies. Taking a seat to watch War Horse at Liverpool’s Empire theatre seemed somehow appropriate then. It was certainly poignant.

War Horse is an epic story, at times almost too large for the Empire stage, literally: there are horses (of course) with bridles and ploughs; there are cavalry charges, tanks and cannons; there are British Tommies and German Jerries. Phew! It’s a busy night front- and backstage. And it all runs so effortlessly. Full marks to the production crew.

It’s the puppetry though which has sent War Horse into its current orbit, and rightly so. The puppetry is indeed mesmerising. After a few minutes, the puppeteers controlling the horses become virtually invisible. It doesn’t take that long—minutes—to really believe there are horses up on that stage, doing all the things that horses do: neighing, swishing, stamping, snorting. There’s something deeply alluring about those equine representations up there on the Empire, something almost mythical.

Paradoxically though this is not a show about horses, not really. Ostensibly this is heart-warming tale of how young man Albert (Thomas Dennis) and horse Joey are reunited after various trials and tribulations—a classic of its genre. In reality this quest—intentionally or not—becomes secondary to a far greater force. For this is a show that sits quite easily alongside anti-war plays such as Journey’s End or Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

Watching this production, one can’t help but dwell upon the utter banality of war, the carnage, the waste of life and the sheer futility. After the interval, once the awe has settled, the sheer stupidity of war is fully exposed. The audience is certainly jolted out of its seats on more than one occasion.

Never more so is this apparent when opposing troops, Germans and English, cease hostilities to rescue Joey, injured somewhere out in no-man’s land, echoing the famous German v England football match said to have occurred also in that place.

During the second half of the show, thematically speaking, it has to be said the Albert-Joey relationship becomes increasingly unimportant. The futility of war is a far weightier topic. If the equine theme therefore does occasionally get lost, it’s easy to see why. That said, the pace never drops for a single moment.

Indeed, eyes (and ears) are assailed throughout. Blink and you miss it. Rae Smith’s set is a dynamic space, one that is ever morphing from the relative gaiety of a country horse fair to the hellish reality of barbed-wired no-man’s land. There are sounds-a-plenty too in this production from haunting folk solos through to jaunty off-to-the-front chants.

Overall, War Horse manages to achieve a heck of a lot in its 150-minute running time. After a slightly tentative start, this production moves through the gears at an astonishing rate of knots.

As far as timing is concerned, Liverpool Empire could not have selected a better moment to produce this show. If ever a show was ripe for November, it’s this one. The standing ovation from the crowd packed into the Empire Theatre certainly seemed to suggest as much.