Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor: Nick Stafford
Director: Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris
Reviewer: Iris Beaumont
War Horse never nearly happened, Nicholas Hytner was hesitant about a 2.5 hour long show where the central character was 10ft foot tall and never speaks a single word, however Tom Morris managed to persuade The National Theatre’s Director to take a risk and a series of workshops began on turning Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the forgotten hero’s of the first world war to stage.
When the show premiered in October 2007, nobody would have envisaged what success would lay ahead for Joey, with sell out successes in London, New York and around the world, and a string of awards it has now embarked on its first ever UK tour.
War Horse is a massive success and that is largely down to the clear and concise vision for the piece by directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris and a strong adaptation by Nick Stafford. Combining a use of an epic soundtrack by Adrian Sutton, Video projections and animations from Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer and a plethora of folk songs from John Tams, Morpurgo’s grim observation of life within the battle fields of the first world war is vividly brought to life, however it is not all doom and gloom. While the lighting by Paule Constable is dark and atmospheric Directors Elliot and Morris fill the darkness with moments of light and humour which fills vast and fittingly open set design by Rae Smith perfectly.
The production follows the epic tale of Joey, a horse that was bought at an auction at a much higher cost than could be afforded, sold behind his owners back for £100 to be a War Horse. His journey is incredible and thanks to the amazing puppet designs of Handspring Puppet Company bring the enigmatic horse to life with real power and strength. It’ hard not to be emotionally drawn in to this tale of friendship and loyalty when the physicality and precision of the puppetry is so exquisite, you quickly forget that Joey and indeed companion horse Topthorn are controlled by three performers.
Lee Armstrong is delightful as the human protagonist of the story Albert Narracott, rearing the young Joey from foal to adult and following him into battle, his arc helps to round off the tale perfectly. Comedy is not far behind thanks to great cameos from Joseph Richardson as the feisty goose and Sean McKenzie as Sergeant “F-Me” Thunder. Credit must also be given to Nisa Cole as French child Emilie – a part that has changed from a puppet in the original production into a living character in this touring production.
There is no dumbing down despite being originally created as a family production, the horrors of war, the language of the soldiers are all evident and the use of foreign language without interpretation helps the overall concept of the piece. War Horse is a rare beast, engaging, magical and yet equally horrific in the subjects being portrayed. I deny anyone to not feel a tug on their heartstrings or a tear leave their eye as Joey’s story is played out in front of them.