Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
The story has some of the elements of legend or fable: a young boy, Albert, acquires a talented horse, Joey, and forges a close relationship with him. Albert’s drunken spendthrift father sells the horse to the British army when war is declared in 1914. The boy goes in quest of his lost horse and, after much suffering for both, they are reunited at last. Along the way there are strong messages about the cruel way that horses were used by both sides in WW1, and about the possibility of reconciliation among individuals who discover their common humanity, regardless of their nationality.
But the most striking thing about “War Horse” is not the story but the production, every aspect of which is supreme. The horses, the main characters in the drama, are played by wonderful full-scale puppets supplied by the Handspring Puppet Company. Each is operated by three actors who have clearly observed horses very well. I began by wondering at the mechanics of the puppets but quickly suspended my admiration of the technique and became immersed in them as creatures in their own right, with thoughts, fears and wills of their own.
The scenes of battle and destruction are marvellously sprung upon us using lighting, sound and a minimum of props. A farm hurdle becomes the rail of a troopship, a plough becomes an abandoned gun-carriage. Above and behind the action, a graphic commentary is projected. The designer Rae Smith’s drawings represent the sketchbook of the officer who took Joey into war: drawings of locations, weather and bombardment. In a succession of images, first neat pencil sketches but later close in style to the Vorticist work of war artists, she succeeds in graphically plotting the descent into despair and chaos of the men sent to the battlefield.
I also enjoyed the linking of scenes by Bob Fox’s unaccompanied singing, setting mood and moving the story on. The lighter moments of banter and stage business were a foil for darker scenes. The pace of the play was excellent; as Rae Smith says, documentary realism would not work in this play (and in my opinion was a weakness in Speilberg’s film of the story). The play truly achieves “poetic” realism and moves with “the speed of the audience’s imagination.” (Reg Butler in the programme)
The packed audience left the theatre buzzing with satisfaction after an enthralling evening. And a lot of us were talking about a scene-stealing puppet goose, who took its final bow with the human actors and needed chasing off the stage!
"War Horse" is at the New Victoria Theatre until 18th August 2018. Book tickets here: