Review: War Horse

At the Lowry Theatre, Salford, 13 June

Hero image

It has been over a decade since the National Theatre’s War Horse achieved unprecedented success. Michael Morpurgo, the author of its source material, felt that his bestselling novel couldn’t be adapted for the stage, but playwright Nick Stafford proved otherwise. The show’s unique selling point was its life-sized horse puppets and “horse choreography” – the brainchild of Toby Sedgwick – which became a huge talking point among theatre-goers.

War Horse has now been seen by over seven million people across 11 countries and counting. Tonight it premieres in Salford before continuing on a three-week run at the Lyric Theatre.

The story begins with Arthur Narracott (William Ilkley) hastily purchasing a young foal named Joey at auction without consulting his wife Rose (Jo Castleton). Although she is initially unimpressed with her husband’s new addition to their Devonshire farm, their son Albert (Thomas Dennis) is delighted and forges a strong bond with the animal.

Joey grows into a magnificent beast but Arthur’s greed gets the better of him. After an ill-advised wager he forces the horse to reluctantly learn how to plough fields and is later sold to the British cavalry as the First World War commences. Albert is heartbroken, leading him to flee the farm and sign up as a soldier himself, searching the battlefields of France for his beloved companion.

The story races through the four year period of the war, aided by a large projection screen above the stage. It features poignant black and white drawings by Rae Smith, the show’s designer, which provide visual accompaniment to events on stage along with dates and locations. This provides welcome clarity as the show races through time.

At its peak, War Horse has the high-octane action of a Hollywood blockbuster

The puppetry skills on display are first class. Joey is one of many horses featured on stage, which adds weight to the scale of the production. Although the camouflaged puppeteers cannot be ignored altogether, it is easy to become enamoured with the horse and forget about them.

There is a distinct cinematic feel to the show. The scene transitions are often seamless and the drama created during the battle sequences is genuinely thrilling, with expert lighting and music contributing to the overall effect. Gunshots are fired, soldiers are held hostage, men are stretchered away, tanks burst onto the stage and horses stand proud on their hind legs as enemies attack. At its peak, War Horse has the high-octane action of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The show boasts a strong cast. Dennis’s central performance is well pitched, keeping the dramatic moments theatrical but never overstating the point. Peter Becker impresses as Friedrich Muller, the German officer who comes to question the morality of his military position – a subplot worthy of deeper exploration. Between scenes, Bob Fox’s role of Song Man is one of subtle importance – his traditional folk music provides a solemn commentary on events as they unfold.

The ensemble scenes are expertly directed by both Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, with some splitting between separate locations or timelines faultlessly. The set design is rightly sparse to make room for the mechanical creatures, while the costume design perfectly transports the audience back in time. The action on stage can often be quite harrowing, but scattered moments of comic relief provide a welcome antidote, with a coin toss between British and French troops being particularly humorous.

War Horse achieves its high ambitions. It cannot be underestimated how much effort has gone into this production and the end result is a testament to everyone involved. But it is fair to say that Joey is the true star of the show and the traumatic situations he experiences throughout leave the audience holding onto the reins at all times.

War Horse is at the Lowry Theatre until 30 June

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