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War Horse

Adapted by Nick Stafford from a Michael Morpurgo novel
National Theatre
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth
to

Wow.

Even on the third viewing, the phenomenon that is War Horse is stunning. And for no other play have I ever witnessed a full house standing ovation.

The story is simple—after all Michael Morpurgo wrote it as a children’s book—but this Great War tale of horses on the frontline is brutal, gut-wrenching and tear-jerking.

Who on earth thought a sword-waving mounted cavalry would have a chance against machine guns, barbed wire and tanks? But they did and millions of horses were commandeered, shipped to France (and beyond) and put to work—as a cannon fodder frontline force, worked to death pulling guns to strategic placements or ambulancing the wounded behind the lines.

Spawned from a chance discovery of an old trunk containing pictures from the trenches and a pint with a Devon Yeomanry veteran, Morpurgo’s carefully researched story is a sweeping and harrowing tale of the futility of war told through the unbiased eyes of Joey, part thoroughbred, part draft horse. There are no sides, just some good people—the sketching Captain Nicholls (Marcus Adolphy), the homesick German officer (Peter Becker), lovelorn cheeky chappie David (Toyin Omari-Kinch)—and some not so good (the warring wastrel Narrocott brothers—William Ilkley and Jack Lord—and trigger-happy soldiers shaped by circumstance).

Long-suffering Rose is nicely underplayed by Jo Castleton while Thomas Dennis is an erstwhile Albert who grows up swiftly in the mud and blood of the Somme spurred ever onwards by a belief he will one day find the horse his father betrayed him and sold.

The story is perhaps routine but the puppetry is what it is all about. From skittish colt to magnificent stallion, Joey is a tour de force. Beautifully observed, the handlers metamorphosise the 10-stone framework into a living, breathing beast with every twitch and tail swish on point.

Handspring Puppet Company’s Topthorn, thoroughbred chargers and skeletal workhorses capture the equine soul and make the audience really care while Elan James’s farmyard guard goose adds light entertainment with its attempts to breach the inner sanctum.

Nick Stafford’s adaption of the novel is pared back and, despite its episodic nature, flowing. Humour is carefully-placed to ease the incessant horror but without breaking the tension. Behind the puppetry are layers of stark fact with whole villages joining up together and its menfolk decimated, messages from loved ones taking forever to reach home and even then being heavily censored, callow youths taking the King’s shilling looking for glory and finding terror, speedy promotions on the back of carnage, shell shock and death.

Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris keep the pace, and every moment is immediate and compelling while Songman Bob Fox meanders throughout with apposite solo and ensemble folk songs, and a cappella.

Rae Smith’s design is bucolic and uniform costuming and a wide open stage with the occasional addition of a door, a plough, barbed wire or hurdles. Key is the grey-white strip on a dark backdrop onto which black and white sketches of galloping horses, villagescapes and battlefields are projected creating context and atmosphere—none more so than the sudden dripping redness morphing slaughter into poppies. Effective in its absolute simplicity.

Clearly I'm a fan but I defy anyone to not leave a performance moved. Tremendous stuff.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell