Having sold out two seasons at the National Theatre, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’ equine adventure takes a running jump into the West End, proving once again that a production centring around a puppet horse really does have the power to reduce audiences of all ages to tears.
Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book is a touching tale of human-horse relations, set against the backdrop of the First World War. Albert, a farmer’s son, is devastated when his father sells his beloved mount Joey to the army in 1914, vowing to follow him into action and return him safely to the paddock.
The secret to War Horse’s appeal lies with South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company who, with the aid of mere bamboo and gauze, somehow manage to create life-sized quadrupeds that are almost more believable than the real thing. Every stamp, snort and start of these fascinating creatures is recreated with such perfect precision that the dark-clothed puppeteers hard at work inside the frames seem to vanish.
Perhaps because War Horse has been such a galloping success, it’s easy to forget this is first and foremost a show for kids – the requisite simplicity of storyline and characterisation jar somewhat with the epic nature of the production and the critical phenomenon it has become.
The second act in particular suffers from a weak narrative arc, exacerbated by the necessity of telling Joey’s side of things not through the horse’s mouth, but that of a kindly German soldier with a rather dodgy accent.
But neither kids nor adults are here for the human characters – it’s the horses we care about, and those touching moments that strike to the soul more than mere words ever could: Joey’s ears pricking up to the familiar sound of Albert’s whistle amidst the chaos of war, Topthorn’s body falling lifeless as his puppeteers retreat silently from the stage. A thundering success.
New London, London, March 28-September 26
- Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo
- Marianne Elliott, Tom Morris
- National Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company
- Cast includes
- Kit Harington, Bronagh Gallagher, Colin Mace, Tim Lewis, Patrick O’Kane
- Running time
- 2hrs 50mins