After seven award winning years in the West End, The National Theatre’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse has hitched its wagon and galloped off on tour. Having coveted tickets for ages, LewisLoves journeyed to the New Theatre Oxford at breakneck speed last night to check it out.
The play begins in rural Devon at the outbreak of the First World War, and follows the story of Albert and his horse, Joey. Poverty and desperation necessitate Joey’s reluctant sale into the Cavalry and he is sadly transported across the English Channel into the midst of battle. His war is not straightforward though and he comes closer and closer to danger.
Despite being too young to enlist, Albert is nevertheless determined to be reunited with his friend. Without a thought, he sets off on a perilous journey of heartache, hope and compassion. The emotional twists and turns in their respective stories will bend and break you; leaving you desperately hoping for a happy reunion.
War Horse’s spectacular life-size horses Joey, and fellow cavalry horse Topthorn, are a world away from any theatrical puppets we’ve seen before. Two rotating trios from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company take what would already be an astoundingly realistic model and somehow breathe an irrepressible vitality into its cane bones and fabric skin. Head, heart and hind all pull together to bring these fantastic creatures to life. It is truly magical.
Rather like a living, breathing Magic Eye puzzle, the puppeteers are clearly visible should you care to look; they have encapsulated the equine mannerisms so well though that you will struggle to separate man from beast. Each and every shiver, whinny and gallop heightens the audience’s empathy; you can truly feel the animal’s fear, pain and bewilderment as they struggle in their new wartime roles.
The set, whilst minimalist, features a torn parchment screen on which naive black and white images are projected; that combined with a powerful score and clever lighting lends an almost cinematic feel to some scenes.
Horses aside, the cast is an utterly superb true ensemble. Their support – even physical on occasion – ensures a seamless flow to the story, making the production feel far richer.
Standout performances come in the form of Thomas Dennis as Albert, whose journey from simple, carefree boy to war-worn young man is perfectly captured. His character is defiant and indefatigable in his hunt for Joey, and the raw emotion he conveys is truly palpable. As Friedrich, Peter Becker delivers a compelling performance as a tormented man, driven to the brink by the ceaseless acts of war, and brought back by a young girl. Together with Joëlle Brabban as the kind and innocent Emilie, these three characters highlight how love and compassion can transcend barriers; in this case, those of language and wartime hostility.
Special credit must also go to the puppeteer in charge of the Albert’s family goose. It’s a minor role, as one might expect for a goose puppet; yet he steals several scenes with his clever characterisation and humourous interludes.
There’s a reason why War Horse has been such a phenomenal success. If the promise of a heart wrenchingly beautiful story isn’t enough to convince you, then you simply must come for the stunning visual spectacle of the horses. You won’t regret it, although bring tissues as there weren’t many dry eyes left by the end.
Where can you see War Horse?
War Horse is at New Theatre Oxford for two whole weeks until 06th January 2018. It then heads off around the UK until early 2019. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see it outside of London!