War Horse, for a very long time, hasn’t particularly taken my fancy. I’m not much of a historian and I’d pretty much always choose to use a theatre trip to see a piece of musical theatre. Only recently has my interest been piqued by many acquaintances seeing the production and unanimously reporting that they found it incredible. Having now seen it for myself, I find myself in complete agreement.
I was drawn into the story, almost instantaneously, thanks to the arrival on stage of the first horse – a small and surprisingly endearing pony. I was instantly fascinated by the machinery and operation of this animal, who after a couple of minutes of familiarising myself with the way the humans interacted with the structure, seemed to take on the form of a living animal. Its movements, mannerisms and noises were amazingly accurate, and I was at once hooked by the story of this little horse, Joey, and his unsuspecting new owner Albert. The relationship they strike up in the first few minutes of the show is critical to the success and poignancy of the remainder of the story, and is is testament to Jack Loxton, playing Albert Narracott, and the actresses puppeteering young Joey – Emma Thornett, Clare Louise Connolly and Abigail Matthews – that this is so beautifully achieved.
Joey soon grows up into a fine example of a thoroughbred horse, and the machinery that comprises this life-size animal is simply remarkable. If I thought the puppetry in The Lion King was impressive, I’ve been shown what more can be achieved. This horse, and the seven others we meet throughout the play (I had no idea there was more than one horse, let alone nine!), were as utterly fascinating to me as the story itself – I was spellbound by the cleverness of the ‘puppets’ and their operators form start to finish. It is quite amazing how the minimalist, skeletal nature of the animals seem to take on a living form; they live and breathe just like the animals, and are never completely still whilst alive. Every last movement of the horses, from their resting breathing pattern, to the flicks of the tail and the ears, the swishes of the head, never ceased and so realistically embodied the nature of this magnificent creature. The horses are not the only animals in the play – there is a fantastically funny goose, a character all his own, and some mean-looking crows; all of whom are equally realistic in their sounds and movements, despite the simplicity of their structure.
I found myself becoming emotionally invested in Joey and his comrade in war Topthorn, and the longer I watched, the more animated and lifelike the animals became. I don’t wish to divulge any spoilers to the story, but tears were shed by myself and everyone else sitting around me at certain points. This is deeply poignant story of just a few of the million or so horses that were lost in World War I, and it is heartwarming and tragic all at once.
The music in the piece is gentle and evocative, finding its roots in folk music and traditional war songs, and sets the atmosphere beautifully. The folk songs are sung by a solo female vocalist, whereas the war songs are mostly sung by a rousing chorus. You are drawn into the heart and soul of the conflict, and the striking staging, perfectly placed in the round at the New London, makes you feel absolutely part of the action. The staging itself is brilliantly clever and highly dramatic. It is wonderfully simple – at times structures are depicted by a few cast members holding up simple fencing, or an entire house can be visualised simply by the door frame through which the cast enter it – and all set against a stark backdrop, highlighted by a projection strip which adds to the visual effect and gives details of the story such as the date and location. The epic battle scenes are simply stunning, the most memorable of which, when a clever prop depicting a tank charges its way through the stage; thanks to the lighting and the brilliance of the staging, leaves you completely breathless.
The only possible fault to find with the production is that the necessity for German and French native characters brought about some questionable accent work, but it was very hard to care about that when the quality of every other aspect of this production was first class.
The story of War Horse is fascinating, devastating and heartwarming all at the same time, but the real stars of the show are, without question, the animals – the story is almost secondary to the opportunity to watch these creatures in action. This is an outstanding piece of theatre, well deserving of its long-standing place in London’s West End, and I for one will be looking for an opportunity to see it again as soon as possible. It is really not to be missed.
Review by Nikki Laurence
New London Theatre
166 Drury Lane
London, WC2B 5PW
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 10 and over. Parental guidance advised.
Show Opened: 28th Mar 2009
Important Info: Latecomers will not be admitted until 20 minutes into the first act.
Friday 27th February 2015