Bristol and War Horse go back a long way. Tom Morris, Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic, tells how he was persuaded by his mother to read Michael Morpurgo’s children’s story and, highly impressed, he wondered if it could possibly be made into a stage show. How could the horses be convincingly portrayed? Morpugo thought it would prove to be an impossible task. To tackle this problem South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company were brought in, and Director Marianne Elliott came on board too, and ten years ago War Horse premiered at the National Theatre.
It is easy to forget what an audacious, high-risk enterprise it must have seemed back then. There were serious doubts about whether audiences would buy into the idea of a play about the First World War that featured puppet horses. That War Horse became such a record-breaking hit is not just because of the brilliance of the puppetry, jaw-droppingly skilful though that is. A key feature of its success is simply that it has a good, solid tale to tell. When transferred to the stage, stories written for children often seem to lose any grittiness they once had, and there were obvious dangers inherent in any attempt to depict the horrors of trench warfare through the eyes of a horse; it could have all become queasily mawkish. But Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s original narrative gets the balance just right between tough-mindedness and sentimentality. In the second half of the show we are left in no doubt that war is a very terrible business indeed.
This show has many other strengths. Adrian Sutton’s music is particularly effective in moments of tension, while John Tams’ songs, beautifully sung by Bob Fox, are infused with a wistful longing for a bygone age when horses and men toiled together in the fields. Designer Rae Smith’s drawings are projected upon a wide screen that looks like a torn page from the sketchbook carried by Lieutenant Nicholls, the soldier who takes Joey the horse away from the farm and off to war. Her drawings, often animated, serve to create a sense of the bigger picture, the action going on beyond the confines of the stage. War Horse is the story of an intimate relationship between a boy and his horse, set against the grim spectacle of the carnage in the trenches. Paule Constable’s dramatic lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound design come into their own in the battle scenes, as both men and horses scatter in terror from bullets and bombshells.
In this new touring revival, directed by Katie Henry, Thomas Dennis gives a touching performance as Albert, the farm boy who joins up with the sole purpose of tracking down his beloved horse. Also outstanding is Peter Becker as Friedrich, a German officer sick of war, who is prepared to risk a great deal to protect the captured Joey and his horse companion, Topthorn. But it is the horses, Joey and Topthorn, who are the true stars of the show (though there is a noisy goose that might think otherwise). That 50 kilos of cane, leather and aluminium can become a living, breathing horse is a wonderful testament to the power of the human imagination and the magic of theatre. Last night there were many in the audience who were moved to tears. War Horse is simply wonderful. ★★★★★ Mike Whitton 19th October 2017