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War Horse - New London Theatre (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IT WAS with high expectations that I went along to the New London Theatre to see the National’s critically acclaimed, Olivier Award-winning production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, it was everything and more than I had anticipated.

For those of you who don’t already know, War Horse is the story of Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse who, at the outbreak of World War One, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France where he serves on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land.

But Albert cannot forget Joey and athough too young, he enlists, a move that takes him on a treacherous mission to find Joey and bring him home.

It’s a moving story that not only highlights the horrors of war from a soldier’s perspective but, in examing the role played by horses, underlines the plight of these beautiful but oftimes exploited creatures. Did you know, for example, that a million horses were sent to France between 1914 and 1918 but only 62,000 returned? Or that many were left to die in appalling conditions?

However, for the purposes of War Horse, Joey and Topthorn (another of the cavalry horses) are puppets but puppets like you’ve never seen before. Life size, they display all the characteristics of their living, breathing counterparts so are totally believable. And it’s thanks mainly to the extraordinary talents and perception of the Handspring Puppet Company who bring them so realistically and tirelessly to life.

But credit must also go to the cast, to Kit Harington (Albert) in particular, who interact with them so well. The scene in which Albert first attempts to win the foal Joey’s trust is a case in point and will almost certainly bring a smile to your face. There are also moments of heartbreak, not least when boy and horse are parted. And believe me, surprising though it may seem, the line between puppet and horse will blur and you will be completely overtaken by emotion.

The cast is superb but Bronagh Gallagher as Albert’s mother deserves special mention. Her portrayal of Rose Narracott will strike a chord with many women – with a bark worse than her bite, she’s loyal to her man (despite his shortcomings) and dearly loves her son. Her anguish when she discovers he’s run off to enlist is almost palpable.

The sets are minimal, consisting for the most part of Rae Smith’s sketchbook images projected onto a screen above the stage. But with Paule Constable’s imaginative and discerning lighting, the atmosphere, be it rural Devon or the battlefields of France, is fittingly authentic. Again, top marks for bringing the true horrors of the Great War to the narrow confines of a London stage.

One final word, War Horse also shows the human face of war – from both British and German viewpoints. Take Kavallerie Hauptmann Friedrich Muller (Patrick O’Kane), for instance, who desperately wants to go home to his wife and daughter and who genuinely cares for Joey and Topthorn. Or the two soldiers, one British, one German, who call a temporary truce in order to free Joey from the barbarous barbed wire of no man’s land – stark reminders both of the absurdity of war.

This is an excellent production although, of course, it may not be to everyone’s taste. The subject matter is undeniably dark but juxtaposed against moments of an altogether lighter nature (you’ll love the goose), War Horse becomes an enthralling, enlightening and emotional experience that shouldn’t be missed. Which means, of course, that after two non-runners (Gone with the Wind and Imagine This) the New London Theatre has at last backed a winner.

War Horse is currently booking at the New London Theatre until October 22, 2011.

War Horse Gallery

Footnote:
Although horses are often thought of as the forgotten heroes of war, they haven’t been forgotten completely. One of London’s newest monuments is the Animals in War Memorial which stands at Brook Gate, Park Lane, on the edge of London’s Hyde Park. It was designed by leading English sculptor, David Backhouse and inspired by Jilly Cooper’s book, Animals in War.
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