The news that War Horse would finally be closing its stable door on 12th March reminded me of our sin of omission in still not having seen it yet, and prompted me to get tickets for the matinee on 30th December. This National Theatre production opened at the Olivier in 2007, came back in 2008 and opened at the New London Theatre in March 2009, where it has been faithfully hoofing it ever since. Everyone who has seen it says how moving it is, so I wanted to see for myself how much it tugs at the heartstrings.
Based (as I’m sure you know) on Michael Morpurgo’s much acclaimed novel, the play was adapted by Nick Stafford, who, I note, also adapted the Royal and Derngate’s The Go-Between a few years ago. Looking back, although I appreciated that Mr Stafford re-worked The Go-Between so that it was completely different from its earlier incarnations, I wasn’t that convinced that his adaptation worked; but then I am a great fan of the film and the book. I’ve not read Mr Morpurgo’s book, so I don’t have that baggage of comparison to deal with. But Mr Stafford doesn’t need me to tell him he has a winner on his hands here.
Covering the years 1914 – 1918, here’s the story in a nutshell. It’s all about Joey, a horse bought at auction for the extravagant sum of 39 guineas by Arthur Narracott, determined to outbid his brother, Ted. Arthur’s son Albert is given the foal to train and to nurture and a great bond is formed between the two. In a further act of rivalry between the brothers, Ted challenges Arthur that if Joey can be taught to plough in one week, Ted will pay Arthur the 39 guineas (which he badly needs). Otherwise, Joey will be given to Ted’s son Billy. But against the odds, Albert trains Joey to plough and gets to keep him. Then the war starts, and Ted sells Joey to the army. When Albert realises that the Lieutenant in charge of Joey at war has been killed, he lies about his age and enlists in order to look after the horse. But Joey is captured, and Albert cannot find him. Will the two be reunited? You’ll have to see the play to find out.
If you’ve seen any promotional material about the play you will know that the representation of the horses and other animals is performed through large scale puppetry, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company. Three actors/puppeteers control the head, the body and the hind quarters respectively of each horse, and you quickly forget they’re there. They bring the animals to life with amazing resonance, and a genuine feel and understanding of not only how their bodies move, but also how they express emotions, like love and fear. The structure of the puppets allows them to gain enormous height on stage so that, despite the very wide and rangey feel of the stage, they eclipse everything else on view. Combined with dramatic lighting and sound effects, the puppet horses are simply stunning to see.
As for the story itself, it portrays the bond between man and horse with great simplicity, dignity and affection. You get the feeling there hasn’t been a lot of affection or purpose in young Albert’s life to date, and as a result Joey becomes more or less everything to him. On the face of it, his joining up so that he can follow Joey to war, is at best reckless and at worst pointless. When he gets there, the play doesn’t shy away from conveying the horrors of the battlefield; and although there’s nothing too graphic, it nevertheless pulls you up short and creates a great contrast with the rural idyll of Devon that went before. This is what Albert is prepared to put himself through to be reunited with Joey.
Call me hard-hearted, but I did feel that the story got bogged down a little in the second act. The scenes that centred on the character of Emilie, the French farm girl who assists the German Officer Müller to look after the horses, for me, at least, dragged somewhat. Nevertheless, Müller is an interesting and strangely challenging character, showing that even Wartime Germans can be kind to animals and can love their families. And was it moving? Well, I did find it generally quite raw on the nerves, but nothing more; until the penultimate scene, when the floodgates opened. Fortunately, I was far from the only one in the auditorium reaching for the Kleenex. A woman in the row in front almost had to be helped out. Mrs Chrisparkle teased me for my emotional reaction; then a little while later confessed that she too had something in her eye. Yeah, right.
There were some very good performances; it goes without saying that the three teams of puppeteers who portrayed Joey, both as a horse and a foal, and Topthorn, another war horse, were technically amazing. James Backway was brilliant as Albert, a very honest, open and idealistic portrayal of a young man willing to risk everything. Alasdair Craig made a very good job of teasing with our patriotic emotions by portraying Müller as a recognisably decent man. Simon Wolfe and Jayne McKenna conveyed the reserve and frustrations of Albert’s parents with very great credibility. And I did enjoy the performance of Alan Francis as Sgt Thunder; we’ve seen Mr Francis three times before as a stand-up comic at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton, and his comic delivery as a stand-up definitely proves itself to be a transferable skill where it comes to comic acting. Colm Gormley was a good Ted Narracott but I did find it difficult to understand everything he said. At one stage I thought he was talking about “pleb” – in fact he said it several times and it never made any sense. It was only in the subsequent scene where Albert was teaching Joey to “plough”, that I understood what he meant. That’s accents for you. One final big up for Ben Murray, as the “Songman”, acting as a unifying thread between the scenes with his very evocative and enjoyable folk singing.
An emotional show, and I’m very glad we finally caught it. I believe the War Horses are being put out to pasture for a year or so after the production closes but there will be a UK tour sometime in 2017. You can’t keep a good Joey down for long.
Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.