The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Winter 2007-2008; Winter 2008-2009; New London Theatre Spring 2009 - Spring 2016
(Originally reviewed in 2007 - scroll down for a 2009 return)
This year's holiday family show at the National Theatre is by far the best yet, with a story that will hold and move children, inventively staged in a way that adults will admire.
Michael Morpurgo's novel tells the story of World War I through the eyes and voice of a horse.
Bought as a colt by a Devon farmer, it is raised with love by the farmer's son. When war comes, the farmer sells it to the army as a cavalry officer's steed and the son joins up as an infantryman.
Between them, boy and horse experience all the horrors of the War before being reunited at the end.
Nick Stafford's adaptation loses the narrative voice of the horse, and tells the story from the outside, but the direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and the creative participation of the puppet company Handspring, keep the story intimate and engrossing.
This is the first of the National's family adaptations of which I can say that the children and teens in the audience were held unfidgeting and involved throughout, and which the adults found equally involving.
The titular horse and several others are impressive creations, somewhere between very realistic Panto animals and the stylised horses of Equus but more impressive than either.
Two puppeteers stand under the body with a third running alongside to manipulate the head, and as with only the very best of puppetry, the humans are both visible and invisible - we know they're there, but the horses take on lives and personalities of their own, so we will ourselves not to see the operators.
(There are also puppet birds, soldiers, children and a particularly funny goose, while projections and shadow puppets help create a sense of the world around the central characters.)
The story itself will have few surprises for adults, though youngsters will find its twists exciting and moving in turn. The strength of the piece comes in the characterisations, human and equine, and in the storytelling that draws us in and holds us with its theatrical magic.
Luke Treadaway plays the boy with touching openness, and there are strong scenes built around Thusitha Jayasundera as his mother and Angus Wright as a sympathetic German officer. Craig Leo, Tommy Luther and Toby Olie create the illusion and personality of Joey the horse.
APRIL 2009: This National Theatre hit's transfer to the West End is the opportunity to revisit it and discover, happily, that it is at least as strong, engaging and emotionally fulfilling as ever - perhaps more so.
Indeed, seeing it with an almost entirely adult audience makes clear that War Horse is not merely a very, very fine holiday family show, but a piece of pure theatre that works its magic on everyone.
Read my original review above for description and plot summary. What I want to stress now is that all the elements of the production, from the music (a mix of period songs and atmospheric orchestrations) through the projections and animations, to the extraordinary puppetry and the human performers, work together to engage our imagination and emotions in a way that only live theatre can.
Someone asked in the interval whether a film version was planned. I certainly hope not. [Later note: It was, and it didn't work.] Real horses and real battlefield scenes would do all the work for us, leaving no room for our own imaginations to draw us into the play.
One small example - in a battlefield scene what is obviously a puppet horse encounters what is obviously imitation barbed wire - and many in the audience cover their eyes, because by that point we have invested it all with a reality no mere realism could achieve.
(It goes without saying that when boy and horse are finally re-united the hankies are out in force all over the house.)
Such theatrical engagement is the essence of the whole production, with examples everywhere. Through the skill of the puppeteers, the horses and other animals take on individuality and personalities - watch as two horses are offered water and one dives in while the other holds back warily for a moment, or try to resist falling in love with that attitude-filled goose.
There have been many cast changes since the first National Theatre run, with Kit Harington now investing the lad with a moving sincerity and Patrick O'Kane slowly winning our trust and affection as the German officer.
By all means bring the children, and let them discover how magical live theatre can be - and perhaps inspire them to read the book and others by Michael Morpurgo.
But come without children as well, for an experience that will engage, involve and move you more than any ten movies you've seen recently.
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