War Horse

Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
National Theatre
The Lowry, Salford

Topthorn and Joey work out who is in charge in the officers' stables (New London Theatre) Credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Albert (Lee Armstrong) tames the young colt Joey
Joey faces a tank alone on the battlefield in France

One of the final achievements of artistic director Robert Robson before he died suddenly in September was to bring the National Theatre's hit show War Horse to Salford. When tickets went on sale, it quickly became the best-selling production in The Lowry's 13-year history and has been booked to return next summer.

70-year-old, best-selling author Michael Morpurgo's fame has leapt into a different league since his 1982 story, which combined his common themes of animals and the First World War, was picked up for this National Theatre production in 2007 and then a Spielberg film in 2011. To bring a story told entirely from the point of view of a horse to the stage, the National brought on board South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company to create the animals.

The horse, Joey, really is the central character, as we follow him from when he is sold at auction as a young colt to Ted Narracott and trained by his son Albert, who grows very close to his pet. However Ted can't resist a bet or a chance of making money, so, after nearly losing Joey to his brother Arthur, he sells him as an officer's horse when the First World War breaks out.

We then go from Exeter to the battlefields of France, where Joey's new rider is killed and he is passed around doing various jobs before being captured by the enemy. There we enter a new story of a German officer who is as shocked by the horror of the slaughter as his British equivalents and decides to save himself, the horses Joey and Topthorn and a French mother and daughter. Meanwhile, Albert has decided to find Joey and lies about his age in order to sign up for the army.

The stage adaptation, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is more like a film than a stage play with its stunning visual landscapes and some scenes told more with images than with words, but its implementation is purely theatrical. Paule Constable's wonderfully atmospheric lighting complements Rae Smith's sparse design, which places a torn strip of paper behind the action onto which are projected beautifully animated pencil sketches as backdrops or transitions between scenes.

This is far from a tightly-plotted narrative with its switches of human protagonist and cinematic establishing shots, but this all adds to the atmosphere and helps to put across the chaos, the terror and the horror of the war, something that it achieves very effectively.

The stars of the show are certainly the animals, particularly the horses. Movement director Toby Sedgwick's manipulation of Handspring's skeletal equine puppets, each operated by three performers, is so incredibly detailed from the breathing and the limb movements to tiny motions of the head and ears that you quickly think of them as real animals. This is one of the show's greatest achievements.

But it's not all horses. There is a wonderful character of a goose that is always trying—and failing—to get into the farmhouse, the scraggy crows amongst the corpses on the battlefield and a great deal more.

This is largely an ensemble production with great performances from all actors, including the puppeteers. Lee Armstrong is very good as Albert with strong performances from Steven Hillman as his father, Karen Henthorn as his mother Rose and David Fleeshman as his uncle Arthur. John Tams adds his usual brand of folk-inspired music and song led on stage by Song Man Bob Fox with the rest of the cast as chorus.

There's no question of this being jolly Christmas entertainment, although there are some humorous moments, but it is a thrilling emotional ride that is ultimately uplifting. If you can't get tickets for this run, book now for next summer as it is a show not to be missed.

Reviewer: David Chadderton