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War Horse review at Olivier National London

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This show is worth seeing for the spectacular, riveting puppetry.

Life- size horses, half model, half skeleton, are manipulated by three puppeteers, two within the body working legs and hips and one from outside it controlling the head. The sinuous equine movements and sounds are totally convincing especially when they are ridden.

The geese and crows, toddler in arms and injured soldiers are effective too.

The story of the much loved Devon-born Joey who is sold to become a war horse in 1914 and eventually reunited with his original owner after several gruelling and terrifying years in France, unfolds to evocative music. This is well led on stage by accordion playing folk singer Tam Van Eyken, sometimes accompanied by an off stage quasi-military band.

Luke Treadaway gives a searing performance as Albert the teenager who loves Joey from a foal and eventually goes off to war underage to experiences terrible losses and suffering – all beautifully suggested with a fragmented filmed-on backdrop, clever lighting and some pretty good props such as full-size WW1 tank.

There are two problems, however. First there’s the plotting. Nick Stafford has distorted Michael Morpurgo’s novel to such an extent that a newcomer would be baffled by much of the action. Who is the French child, Emilie (played rather unsuccessfully by a grotesque puppet) for example and why does she suddenly call Joey ‘Mon cheval?’ Then there’s the faulty pacing. The action is self indulgently slow in several places. At least 15 to 20 minutes should have been sliced off the length.

It’s impressive – big stage, big cast work and older children will come flocking because Morpurgo’s stories are so popular. But some may be disappointed because theatricality is no substitute for clear, well timed story telling.

Production Information

Olivier, National, London, October 17-January 12

Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
Marianne Elliott, Tom Morris
National Theatre, Handspring Puppet Company
Cast includes
Luke Treadaway, Jamie Ballard, Angus Wright, Thusitha Jayasundera, Tim Van Eyken
Running time
2hrs 40mins

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