War Horse – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Sandra Callard, February 2018
War Horse, the National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo’s book written for children, is on its majestic second national tour. Morpurgo’s book was well-received on publication, the Spielberg film that followed boosted its fame, but it is this stage production that has rocketed War Horse to international acclaim. Morpurgo himself is in happy accord with our greatest dramatist when he put the words “The play’s the thing…” into the mouth of Hamlet.
The story is simple, but the basic premise happened in reality thousands of times during the 1914-18 World War. Young men on a crest of patriotism joined up in their thousands, and the government requisitioned most of the country’s horses, in what was to become the last war to use the animals in warfare.
“Exquisite use of sound”
A young lad, Albert Narracott, played with great sensitivity by Thomas Dennis, takes charge of a young horse bought by his drunken father to spite a neighbour. The horse, named Joey by Albert, grows into a magnificent stallion, and he is heartbroken when Joey is requisitioned by the government to go to France. As soon as he can he joins up, not specifically to fight, but to find Joey.
This simple story resonates with the horrific sounds and sights of WW1, but never gratuitously. There is the barest scenery, but the most exquisite use is made of sound, lighting and background images of a ripped sketch book which can become a storm, a cloud or a battlefield.
The atmosphere is beautifully heightened by the minstrel-type singing of Bob Fox, who wanders in and out of the action bringing pathos and imagination to the scenes. Occasionally these narrators/singers who are set apart from the actors, can be slightly irritating. Not so with song man Fox. He adds to each scene with a quiet and humane interaction that is moving and somehow comforting.
“Wonderful ease and reality”
Of course the most glorious and breathtaking thing about War Horse is the horses themselves. There are other horses with Joey, who has a partner-in-war in a huge silver stallion named Topthorn. There are also smaller horses with lesser mechanism which play solid and necessary roles in support of the larger animals.
The life-like movement of the animals – and there are not only horses but numerous smaller animals too – is down to the people who make them move with such wonderful ease and reality. The mechanics can be clearly seen, but this in no way detracts from the acceptance of the animals as real, moving creatures.
“Evokes a gasp”
The designer of War Horse, Rae Smith, has reproduced every sinew, muscle and movement of the horse in a way that is so breathtakingly beautiful it immediately evokes a gasp and a lump in the throat. It is without doubt the most magnificent spectacle I have ever witnessed on stage when Albert gallops across it on the fully-grown chestnut stallion, Joey. This is a horse we are looking at, not a machine or a puppet or a reproduction, this is a beautiful, graceful, equine reality.
The cast of War Horse is huge, and each contribute to the whole to make it the spectacle that it has become. Mountains of praise has, quite rightly, been heaped upon this production, and I have no hesitation in saying that, if you only see one show this decade, make it this one.