War Horse

Adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo
National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Sunderland Empire

Topthorn and Joey Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Albert (Lee Armstrong) and Joey Credit: Ellie Kurttz
War Horse Credit: Ellie Kurttz
War Horse Credit: Ellie Kurttz

There was a time when standing ovations in theatre were rarer than hens' teeth but in recent years they have become much more common (especially in musicals) with pockets of the audience standing up, clapping and whooping with great enthusiasm.

At the opening night of War Horse at Sunderland Empire, however, the whole audience surged to its feet almost as one and the final applause would have gone on for twice or three times as long had the cast kept returning to the stage.

And the buzz and excitement as the audience left the theatre had to be felt to be believed.

It's a simple story about a 16-year-old boy, Albert (played by Newcastle-born Lee Armstrong), and his horse Joey, set amidst the horror and carnage of the First World War, but it is cleverly told, with both horse and boy as the central characters, and even more cleverly and effectively staged.

Probably every critic who has ever seen the show has commented on the realism of the horse puppets and how we soon forget the puppeteers and just see the animals, but it has to be repeated because it is so true. It's a real coup de théâtre.

Joey, who appears first as a foal, isn't the only puppet. In fact the play opens with two songbirds which, in the battlefield scenes, are replaced by carrion crows feeding on the bodies of the dead, both human and animal, and there is also a wonderful goose which flaps around the farmyard and tries to get into the house.

There is also Joey's wartime stablemate Topthorn, and a number of other horses which are less fully-realised but are kept in shadow in the background and so still appear very realistic.

Also making a major contribution, especially in the battlefield scenes, are Paule Constable's lighting and Christopher Shutt's sound design, both of which add enormously to the impact.

It's a massive cast, too. Twelve puppeteers play Joey and Topthorn in rotation at different performances and 22 actors play 30 parts.

So, War Horse is a splendid spectacle but how does it stack up as a play? As I said above, it's a simple story—a feel-good story, in fact, in a tradition stretching all the way back to Aesop and Androcles and the Lion, a tale of the connections that can exist between man and animal.

The young Albert trains the foal Joey and a strong bond grows between them, but his father sells the horse to the army for £100, a huge sum to him, and Joey enlists to find him again. His hunt for Joey sees him through all the horrors of the war. We see the German side, too, and they are just like the British. Finally Albert and Joey are reunited to their mutual joy.

It's a real tear-jerker—there was hardly a dry eye in house! Sentimental? Yes, obviously, but done so well (not a weak performance in sight) that that it didn't matter. It doesn't shy away from what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war." Gas attacks and all the other carnage are shown in graphic detail but its portrayal of simple love and human goodness in the midst of all this is life-affirming.

War Horse opened at the National in 2007 and is currently playing in the West End. It's been on tour since 2013 and I have not doubt that it will run and run. Nowehere else in the region could fit this show onto its stage, so north east audiences should grab this chance to see a truly epic performance which runs at the Empire until 17 May.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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