I actually saw this show a few weeks ago but had to hold off on reviewing it for reasons which I'll make clear later. War Horse was adapted from a children's novel by former laureate Michael Morpurgo. It began life at The National Theatre in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company who produced the extraordinary quadrupeds and is now enjoying a successful run in the West End at the New London Theatre. It gained a little news coverage on its transfer with advance sales of over £1.5m and is currently booking through to February of next year. So how does a show about horses on the front line manage to buck the trend in a recession-hit West End?
Well, the night I watched I was sat next to a family with three kids aged between10 and 15. To my right were a couple in their 60's. There was a moment during the show when we all wore exactly the same expression on our faces. You know the one: that moment when Superman flew, when Keanu Reeves dodged a bullet or two, when you realise that your mouth is hanging open and a smile is tickling the corners of your mouth. The puppetry in this show is extraordinary. From the moment when we first meet Joey as a young foal, you cannot help but be captivated by his every movement. Created from bamboo frames with the most basic covering the horse puppets are quite simply breathtaking. The skill with which the actors make them not only move, but breathe, snort, eat and react is wonder to watch. It is so well done that it's worth reminding yourself that presumably there was a point for all involved when they thought 'right, how on earth are we going to represent horses on stage?!'
It isn't just the horses though. Other animals and human figures are manipulated by the ensemble to create a vastly populated environment and there is a goose which almost steals the show with its constant attempts to gain entry to the farmhouse. This is a production where the word ensemble really means something; their collective efforts perfectly suited to the pastoral scenes in the first third and the front line heroics of the rest of the play. Choral singing is used to great effect, the folk songs creating a real sense of Britishness, a welcome change to the diet of imported American musical theatre. As with many of the National's productions one wonders whether there is enough in the play itself for anyone attempting it on a smaller budget. Quite often it can be the production which is worth five stars rather than the play. I haven't read the novel itself but I understand that it continues beyond where the play finishes, but I don't think that means that there's anything lacking from the adaptation. With the running time close to three hours including interval, and with the energy and effort exhibited in its creation, I'm not sure I could have taken much more. Which I mean in a good way. With their previous hit Coram Boy, the National showed they could create children's theatre that was entertaining, mature and at times absolutely terrifying. The horrors of the Great War provide ample opportunity for that terror to continue and the pure theatrical magic of those animals ensures that the highs more than compensate for the lows.
All of which means that I couldn't be happier to be joining the company at the very end of September (oh yes, that hefty plugging in the first paragraph makes a bit more sense now, doesn't it). I only found out a couple of days ago which is why I had to hold off posting my thoughts. I'm off now to practice my trotting. I've been told that if I'm a good boy I'll get a sugar lump.