This week I was lucky enough to attend my very first theatre show for Superbreak, which was none other than the highly acclaimed War Horse. After hearing opinions, reading various reviews and watching the film, I couldn’t wait to see how they would bring the horse (Joey) to life on stage.
War Horse tells the emotional tale of Albert and Joey taking them through the turbulent battlefields of World War I and testing their powerful bond between animal and man. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company bring a living, breathing full-scale horse to life in a way that I can only describe as magical.
For those with little imagination, it’s probably quite hard to envisage how they do this. ‘Well it’s basically a play about a horse which is a life-size puppet that is operated by 3 men, you can see the puppeteers moving inside the puppet but you don’t really notice them blah blah etc’. Admittedly, this explanation could easily conjure up visions of a comedy pantomime horse, but ye have little faith. War Horse takes the art of puppetry to a whole new level which has to be seen to be believed…
Taking my fabulously located seat (thanks Superbreak!) I was struck by the bareness of the stage. With nothing but a giant strip of torn paper stretching across the width of the stage, a sense of mystery was maintained of what was to come. After receiving various warnings that the show was enough to jerk a tear from even the stoniest of hearts, I had my Kleenex at the ready.
The show began with tiny swallow puppets swooping low over the audience, immediately extending the action on the stage out to the whole theatre. Suddenly, the electric ensemble cast emerged to gather around the horse auction ring to watch Albert (Luke Jerdy) and his father Ted (Steve Nicolson) win the bidding war for the young foal, which is animated by a trio of female puppeteers. At first, my focus was on the puppeteers rather than the puppet, as I was primarily captivated by how the they were working together to animate and provide sound for the puppet. As the focal point of the storyline was established around Joey, I began to adjust my focus from the puppeteers to the puppet itself. Within about 15 minutes, I had totally bypassed the presence of the puppeteers and was utterly transfixed on the magical and lifelike movement of the horse.
Rachel Sanders does a wonderful job of playing Rose, Albert’s long suffering mother, who lumbers Albert with the impossible task of training Joey to plough. It is then that their special bond begins to develop. For me, the most breathtaking moment of the play is when Joey strides from a foal into a fully grown horse. During an early scene where Albert is training Joey and playing around, the foal suddenly disappears and is replaced by a fully grown horse that bursts onto the stage to dramatic lighting and music.
The fully grown puppet is even more intricate and lifelike than the foal, with further horse-like mannerisms and movement, which is operated by three male puppeteers. The puppet moved like a real horse, pointing its ears, swishing its tail and dragging its hooves. The most amazing thing about it is how the three puppeteers moved so gracefully as one to create such a captivating form of physical theatre. The strong steel frame of Joey meant that he could be saddled up and ridden by the actors when he is sold to the army, which further added to its lifelike qualities.
A comedy aspect was added to the play in the form of a mischievous goose and bossy Yorkshire sergeant as he educates his troops with his abysmal French language. The goose often provided a light-hearted relief at the opening or closing of scenes, and was warmly received by all the audience.
Warhorse is a powerful and unique stage production that displays the magic of physical theatre at its best. If you fancy treating yourself to a West End show that extracts the cheesy show musicals and amps up the drama, War Horse is, quite literally, just the ticket. Nobody can fail to be captivated by the majestic movements of the puppets, which is the USP that makes this such an unforgettable show. I won’t do a plot spoiler, but before you ask, yes, a tear was shed!
Have you seen War Horse? Tell us what you thought…