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Theatre Review: War Horse

15 March 18 words: Dom Henry

The horror of the WWI trenches seen through the eyes of two horses

As the centenary mark approaches the end of 1914-1918 war years, the National Theatre’s inspired show War Horse is in town for a three week run, bringing home the horror of the muddy trenches through eyes of just two of the 1 million horses sent to France in WWI, most never to return.

It’s an epic feat, 15 lorries worth of kit bringing together the staging to allow us to follow two life size 15 stone puppet horses from the sunshine and rolling hills of the Devon countryside to the sucking mud and bleak carnage of France as the war consumes the once green fields.

Joey and Topthorn

Lead horses Joey and Topthorn and their puppeteers

The enthralling performances of the puppet horses drive the show, each lovingly crafted by the Handsprung Puppet Company and brought to life by a team of three stable clad puppeteers, beautifully choreographing every exquisite tail swishing detail, twitch and nuzzling nuance of these great creatures. The artful puppeteers gradually becoming almost invisible to us as lead horses Joey and Topthorn fill with life and nervous equine energy.

Joey’s bond with devoted Devon farm lad Albert Narracott is the driving relationship in the story, who raises him from a foal after his drunken father blows the farm mortgage money on the athletic thoroughbred cross to spite his brother. Thomas perfectly catches the youthful spirits, naivety and exuberance of Albert, which is poured without measure into his love of his hunter bred horse Joey.

Albert and Joey

Albert (Thomas Dennis) astride Joey

When war breaks out in 1914, Albert's father sells Joey into the cavalry as an officers steed behind the distraught young boy’s back, only for Albert to follow him into the ranks to try and find his beloved horse to the anguish of his mother. We then follow Joey and Albert’s paths from Devon country life into the horror of the trenches, seen from both sides of the wire as Joey and fellow horse Topthorn find themselves under the care of Friedrich a disenchanted German cavalry officer.

Friedrich with Joey and Topthorn

Friedrich (Peter Becker) with Joey and Topthorn

The talented and sizable cast and ensemble appear on a broad sweep of a stage, that fills our senses with a well-calculated blend of live action and projection. Split with a great tear as if from the pages of a war poets book, taking on animated sketches of sky, vistas and battlefields.

The spectacle is matched with an excellent score, a mix of English Elgar-esque classical and folk music from Adrian Sutton, brought to poignant life with the rich folk voice and accordion of country song man Bob Fox, which joins the scenes together with reminders of country life and home.

Bob Fox and Ensemble

Song man (Bob Fox) and ensemble

This is a wonderful spectacle. The captivating physicality and superb attention to detail in the movement and characters of both horses and humans makes it spell binding.

There is a touch of Black Beauty comes of age here, the original book is a children’s novel but this production pulls no punches and is brutal in places. A worthy reminder of the sacrifice and suffering of the huge numbers of cavalry and transport horses killed, injured and worked to death to keep the war efforts of both sides moving. Very few made it home after 1918, with most who survived the attrition auctioned off and ultimately ending up on French dinner tables.

Well worthy of the standing ovation received. If you are of a horsey nature take plenty of tissues.

Now, go and get tickets.

War Horse plays at the Royal Concert Hall Nottingham until April 7 2018.

British Army horses in WWI - National Army Museum

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