Theatre Review: War Horse

I've talked before on the blog about the fact that often when I come to something that has loads of hype around it - usually a book - I end up feeling like it was good, but not the life-changing, earth-shattering sensation I'd been led to expect from the reviews. So I have to admit that I approached going to see War Horse with trepidation. I'd read the book and really enjoyed it (you can read my review of it from back in my early blogging days here), but hadn't seen the film or the stage show, though I'd heard nothing but good things about both.
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For those who don't know the story, War Horse is the story of Joey, a hunter - half thoroughbread, half draft horse - who is bought at an auction as a foal by farmer Ted Narracott in an attempt to outdo his brother Alfred. Ted's son Albert develops a strong relationship with Joey and the two quickly become inseperable. When war breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army, Albert sets off to France to find the horse who has become his best friend.

The first thing I have to say is that the puppeteers are absolutely brilliant. From the moment we meet Joey, you truly feel his emotions as he goes from the fear of being alone to slowly developing a lasting bond with Albert and then the pain of their separation, and that is down to their acting skills to give the puppets personality. In fact all the puppets and their puppeteers are fantastic, from the birds - whether they're swallows soaring in the sky over Devon or crows feasting on the bodies in France - to the scene-stealing goose, who provides much of the show's comic relief. You quickly forget that you're watching puppets rather than living, breathing animals, which is entirely what you want from a theatre production and is a huge part of the play's strong sense of realism as you're immersed in the world on the stage.

That said, there are some brilliant performances from the actors as well, who are all so perfectly cast and really make each character distinct. The standout turn is, of course, Sion Daniel Young as Albert, but I also loved Ian Shaw as Freidrich Muller, the German officer who finds Joey after his original rider is killed and takes him away from the front line to pull an ambulance. The conflict he feels between his duty as a soldier and his longing to go home to his family is beautifully acted and he actually helped enormously with the play's sense of sympathy for everyone involved in the war, rather than the traditional narrative of 'British good, Germans bad'.

The performances are supported by a wonderfully simplistic set, with a gash-like expanse of white in the backdrop onto which is projected scenes of Devon life, the journey across the Channel and the horrors of going over the top. Coupled with ingenious use of light to create explosions and illuminate the big moments - particularly one highly dramatic scene in which technology finally renders the horses' presence on the battlefield obsolete - and the gorgeous folk songs that litter the production, hearkening back to Joey and Albert's idyllic life together in Devon and the soliders' longing for home (there's a couple of numbers that sound like they've walked straight out of Vera Lynn's 'entertaining the troops' setlist), they enhance the story but don't overshadow the actors' and puppeteers' efforts.

But what really struck me about the show was the level of emotion in the show as a whole. I can't remember the last time I cried in a theatre, but I was sniffling as soon as Joey appeared on stage and had weepy moments up until the end when I think pretty much the whole audience was in floods. The play really throws you into these characters' lives very quickly and you connect with them through the horrors of their experiences. It's a brilliant marriage of fantastic performances, lovely music and great design and it all comes together perfectly to create a show you'll never forget.

War Horse books up incredibly quickly, but you can see it at the New London Theatre until 14 February 2015 - plenty of time to get saving! And if you can go, I insist that you do - it's one of the best evenings I've ever spent in a theatre. Just wonderful.

Have you seen or read War Horse?

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