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War Horse, New London Theatre – Review

Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris
★★★★★
Pros: A stunning play packed with emotion, talent and humanity.
Cons: The ending moment perhaps lacked some of the emotion it had been built up to produce.
Our Verdict: The play that theatre has been waiting for. Simply breathtaking.
Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Michael Morpurgo wrote War Horse with the intention of telling the story of the First World War through the eyes of a horse, so that the reader can experience the now familiar history from a new perspective. Nick Stafford’s adaptation of the popular children’s book captures the war from different perspectives; the horses and the heroes; the victims and the families who suffered with them. The production embodies the simultaneously tragic and hopeful spirit of WW1 and does so with grace and heartfelt simplicity.
For those yet to read, see on stage, or watch the film, War Horse, Morpurgo’s classic tells the story of sixteen year old Albert, the son of a drunken farmer who spends his mortgage money on a hunter foal instead of the plough horse he had been sent out to purchase. The boy and his horse, Joey, form a unique bond against all odds, which lives on when war is declared and Joey is sent to France as a cavalry horse.
In his author’s notes, Morpurgo writes that inspiration for War Horse came from “a tarnished old oil painting of an unknown horse”. The set design quite brilliantly reflects this, centring round a giant 25m rip across the back of the stage onto which sketches by artist Rae Smith are projected throughout the play. These drawings are a perfect accompaniment to the simplicity of the set, allowing atmosphere to be created by the cast, the music and of course, the puppets. 
Designed by Handspring Puppet Company, the three-man horse puppets and their movements are nothing short of sublime. To describe them as exactly like real horses would be a discredit; their elegance and beauty goes beyond reality and entera a realm of artistic perfection. No detail in the choreography is left unattended and while the big moments during battle are heart stopping, it’s the tiny details which really showcase the commitment of the company to absolute authenticity. In the scene when Joey struggles to plough, for example, each of the puppeteers’ feet are completely synchronized, conveying the strain of the pull and building on the intensity of the scene. The wheeled goose puppet, an audience favourite throughout the show’s run, creates some wonderfully comic moments that provide much needed relief in the face of war time drama.
Second only to the masterful puppetry are the performances of the fantastic cast. Tom Hodgkins as Arthur Narracott is faced with the daunting task of portraying an adolescent at war, staring death in the face prematurely, hundreds of miles from home. He does so with conviction and authenticity, for the most part, though it is difficult to envisage his character in the authoritative military role he is granted towards the close of the play. It is the German Friedrich Muller, played by Ian Shaw, who acts as the turning point for the play’s emotional impact. Sharing his love of horses with the young French girl Emilie, played by Zoe Thorne, who reminds him of his daughter from back home, Shaw’s performance confronts the audience’s hostility towards the German characters and cements the all-encompassing humanity that makes War Horse quite so special.
The accompanying soundtrack uses cinematic scoring to enhance the vivacious running scenes whilst more ominous moments are combined with live, traditional folk tunes. The latter is perhaps the more effective of the two, with the most memorable moment for me being Albert’s platoon going over the top of their trench, singing nostalgically as they go. The melodies, with their lonely, haunting harmonies, stay with you as the young soldiers fall and it’s at this moment that the gravitas of Morpurgo’s subject matter truly hits home. Overall the experience is highly emotive, but the ending lacks some of the weight that the rest of the writing wants from it and perhaps this is because the source is after all a children’s story. 
I entered the New London Theatre expecting to see a fantastic play. I left three hours later temporarily speechless at the phenomenal amount of exhilarating, beautiful and heartbreaking action the National Theatre give their audiences night after night. Whether you’re an animal lover, a book worm or simply a human being, this play cannot fail to move you. Away from the glamour of the multiple awards won and subsequent international fame, its earthy reality and accessibility embodies everything the theatre should be, and I simply cannot recommend it enough.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

War Horse plays at New London Theatre and is currently booking until into 2014.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or visit: http://warhorseonstage.com/tickets/london

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Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.