Archive Review – “War Horse” (New London Theatre, London)

Review first published 28/08/12

This theatrical version of Michael Morpurgo’s novel about the bond between a teenager and his beloved horse who are separated by the First World War has been playing to full houses for over three years now and, after seeing it for a second time, it’s easy to see why.

When I’ve spoken to people who have a passing knowledge of the play, the first response is usually that it’s “that one with the puppets”.  Yes, it does feature puppets – most notably in the two main horses Joey and Topthorn, but the performers who breathe life into them enable the audience to suspend their belief for the period of the piece with every movement, ear twitch and even “breath”.

But, the puppets alone wouldn’t make this piece of theatre as good as it is on their own.  Nick Stafford’s script based on Morpurgo’s novel teases you in with the vision of Joey as a colt and follows it up with warmth and humour as you are guided along Joey’s early life in Devon.  However, as in the film adaptation, the rug is pulled away from the audience once Joey is separated from his owner, Albert Narracott, to serve with the British army and you are shown trials that he and Topthorn have to face throughout the course of the War.

The cast of War Horse is a large one, with some performers having to perform more than one role.  The most prominent performers in this piece are Alex Avery in the role of Captain/Major Nichols, the officer who purchases Joey from the Narracotts, Steve Nicholson and Rachel Sanders as Albert’s parents, Robert Horwell in the twin roles Albert’s uncle Arthur and Sergeant Thunder, Kate Colebrook as the young French girl, Emilie, who befriends Joey and Topthorn in a quiet interlude amongst the battles (along with performing as Joey as a foal), Richard Cant in twin roles as the Priest in the Narracott’s home village and Friedrich Muller, the German officer who saves Joey and Topthorn from being shot by volunteering them for ambulance work, and Jack Holden in the role of Albert.

Holden particularly stands out as he has to really sell the bond that Albert has with Joey, both as a foal and as a fully grown Hunter horse to make the parting between them feel devastating and to convince that the character would search through the battlefields of Europe to be reunited with his horse.

Although the play isn’t a musical, as such, it is guided by a musical element of songs from the turn of the century West Country along with songs of patriotism during World War I.  These are predominantly performed by Bob Fox in the role of the Song Man, but there are points where members of the wider cast join in to give a feeling of community.

All these ingredients, alongside the effects work and set design, work together to make for a heady brew of emotion as you are drawn into Joey’s and Albert’s twin storylines.  War Horse made me smile and sniffle in equal measure with the added bonus of making me think about the impact of war, not only on the human combatants, but the innocent civilians and the animals caught up in the conflict.

War Horse is currently booking until 26 October 2013 at the New London Theatre and a national UK tour due to commence in Autumn 2013.

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