Michael Morpurgo was my favourite childhood author, from Kensuke’s Kingdom to The Butterfly Lion. Nothing ever quite touched my heart like War Horse, though.
When the beautifully written book was adapted into an equally stunning Steven Spielburg film, I watched it twice in the same day at the cinema.
On National Theatre Day, Wednesday 27th March, I was invited to watch the powerful story come to life as War Horse continues its UK tour at The Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.
Chills were running down my spine and goosebumps appeared on my arms within the first five minutes of the show. Set in rural Devon, Joey is a young hunter foal won at auction by Albert’s father Ted using the family’s mortgage money. Joey has to earn his keep, and so Albert (Scott Miller) – the only person the pony trusts – trains him to be a farm horse.
The play depicts the unbreakable bond between man and animal, and the love the pair of them have for each other. Albert teaches Joey to plough, which will eventually be a skill that saves his life when Ted sells the horse to the Army during World War One.
Joey the horse is portrayed through exquisitely produced puppets. We first encounter Joey as a foal, but as his older self bursts onto the stage as time fast-forwards before your eyes, a lump in your throat will be difficult to swallow. That’s very much the case in many of the scenes. The puppets are controlled by three magnificently talented puppeteers, who control Joey’s head, heart and hind. Not only do they control his movement, but also convey his emotion in such an incredible way that you entirely forget that they are puppets. The show really does bring them to life and it is truly mesmerising, from a flick of the tail, to a snort – his character is realistic beyond belief, and everyone loves him.
Joey isn’t the only mechanical puppet in the performance; there is also Topthorn, crows, and a farmyard goose that loves the limelight. These puppets are so beautifully crafted and manoeuvred that they develop their own personalities and adored characteristics – they’re a credit to their makers.
When Ted sells Joey to the calvery, heartbroken Albert signs himself up to the Army to fight in France, and find his beloved friend. The entire performance you are rooting for the pair to find each other – the theatre even gave us packets of tissues to take in with us, because, believe me, you’ll need them. The play takes you on an emotional four year journey through the war, through new friendships, loss, shell shock and love.
It’s not all bittersweet tears, though. There are some comical moments slotted in just the right places, and in a typically British way, too. When Joey is stuck in the barbed wire, British soldiers toss a coin with the German’s over who gets him. The Geordie jokes, “two of us and only one horse, better not cause a war,” and that “there are widows at home crying because men like us couldn’t just talk.”
The final scene where an injured Joey is reunited with Albert, blinded from teargas is the most heart-wrenching moment of all, and is executed beautifully.
War Horse is the most captivating performance I have ever seen. The incredible and loveable cast, stunning creative lighting and sound effects take the play to another level. The guns are so realistic that my mum jumped and threw a glass of orange juice over me. Everything about the production is absolutely stunning. If you watch one theatre production this year, it has to be this.
War Horse is at The Regent Theatre from 27 March to 6 April. Buy tickets from the ATG site here.