War Horse

Karen Regn talks to the stars of a hugely ambitious production of War Horse

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War Horse comes to Manchester and is primed to be the biggest and most ambitious show to ever grace the Lowry stage. Adapted from the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is far from just the drama that inspired Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film. Since its premiere seven years ago, the play has been seen by over four million people worldwide.

War Horse is the powerful story of a young boy called Albert, played by Lee Armstrong, and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been requisitioned to fight for the English in the First World War. Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a mission to find his horse and bring him home.

Although much of the action takes place in Devon, over a third of the cast hail from the North West. Manchester-based actor Steven Hillman, who has had roles in Coronation Street, Shameless and Emmerdale is primed for the role. “It’s a story with heart and northern audiences will really be engaged. I can’t wait to bring it to Manchester.”

Hillman describes his War Horse character, Ted, as a farmer who is uneasy with himself and “compensates with bluster”. The actor was proud to receive a thumbs-up on his performance from Morpurgo himself when the author attended a recent performance – although he admits the role was initially quite intimidating.

“It’s quite daunting, really, working on the stage in this different medium with this panting and breathing puppet, responding to you with its head, heart and hind.

“The secret to this show’s success is the puppets. The horse whips its tail and rears up and kicks. From the twitching ears to the swish of his tail, it’s amazing.”

War Horse features 18 puppets in total, including life-size horses Joey and Topthorn, as well as a goose, two swallows and two crows. The horses, constructed from cane and stretched georgette, were created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, based in Cape Town.

“It’s a story about love, friendship and loss, and even if you’ve not lost someone in a war, anyone can relate to it,” said Oldham-born actor Karen Henthorn, who plays Rose in War Horse, formerly Teresa Bryant in Coronation Street.

Henthorn’s character is the lynchpin of the family, a woman who survives through hard work, honesty and graft.

“Any role is a challenge, but in this it’s adapting to a theatrical medium, which means finding comfort in a massive space, vocally and emotionally. I’m still exploring and growing into the part, but I’m thrilled to be doing it. I’m loving every second of it.

“The puppets take War Horse to another level of spectacular. Of the three – the book, the play and the film, the theatrical production is the most effective because it’s positively thrilling.

“It’s strange, but within a couple of minutes of being awestruck by the horse, you get over it. Every member of the audience will have this experience. Within a very short time, we forget the actors are there. That’s part of the magic. You suspend your disbelief and they become living creatures.”

War Horse, until 18 January 2014, Lowry Theatre, Salford

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War Horse

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