Straight after coming home from seeing War Horse, the now annual National Theatre production based on a children’s book and designed for family audiences, I went online to book tickets to see it again, this time with my partner, parents and older brother (who is a vet and has specialised in working with horses). So should you, before it sells out completely – and it will.
Like the National’s astonishing production of Coram Boy, premiered in 2005 and reprised to virtual capacity business last year, it is a piece of extraordinary theatre making that is at once both epic and intimate, absolutely guaranteed to move the heart. It’s a thrilling, occasionally chilling, journey into the darkness of the First World War, viewed from a highly unusual perspective: that of the horses that were also conscripted into the war effort, poignantly personalised in 16-year-old Albert’s relentless journey to find his beloved horse Joey who has been sold to the cavalry and shipped off to France to fight.
Don’t be misled by its source material coming from the pen of former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, or its special billing (and pricing) for those under 18: this is a show for all ages and all time. Playwright Nick Stafford and co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have created an instant but timeless classic of theatre craft and art to tell its haunting story with a magical and vivid originality.
That’s partly thanks to beautiful physical realisation of the horses themselves, who are brought to life-size realisations in brilliantly theatricalised giant wood and metal puppet figures, inhabited and manipulated by three performers each, that have been created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
But everything about this production has an engrossing magnificence, from Rae Smith’s fluid set designs and projected drawings, sculpturally lit by Paule Constable, to Adrian Sutton’s gorgeously atmospheric music and John Tams’ songs. The faultless cast, led by Luke Treadaway’s tender, terrific Albert with Jamie Ballard and Angus Wright as the English and German officers who respectively become his horse’s guardians, inhabit its world totally and so will you as you shed tears watching it.
Transfer to West End’s New London, originally reviewed for the Sunday Express, April 2009
There’s also a hugely welcome West End transfer for the National’s stunning stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War novel War Horse, which has lost none of its expansive, exhilarating power on the high, wide stage of the New London Theatre.
It brings the story of a boy’s journey to be reunited with his horse that has been commissioned for army service to the stage with extraordinary theatrical flair, and the horses – embodied by life-size puppets, manipulated by up to three puppeteers apiece – come to astonishing 3D life. It is simultaneously the most moving and spectacular play in London.