There are so few pieces of theatre like War Horse. Adapting a children’s story with Handspring puppets and raw folk music is not the most obvious thing to do. Add the fact that the plot revolves around an animal who needs to emote and feel as emphatic as possible to make anything work, and it takes a daring creative team to tackle this.
Luckily for audiences worldwide, it turned out gobsmackingly great, and audiences’ love for it was proved on Thursday when it became the most popular National Theatre production to be screened in cinemas yet with more than 155,000 people watching worldwide.
Bearing that in mind, it was even more special to be sitting in the New London Theatre with theatre-lovers and celebrities – including John Hurt, Tom Daley, Philip Schofield and David Ramsey from Arrow – to see the outrageously talented cast and production team do what they do best.
The play starts simply, with songman Ben Murray setting the mood, as he does at intervals throughout, with a heart-rending song about love that was clearly cleverly chosen so its lyrics could always relate to Joey the horse and Albert (Sion Daniel Young), his teenage owner.
The ridiculously clever but simple set featuring a scrap of paper ripped out of Captain Nicholls’ (Alex Avery) sketchbook as the backdrop meant that the scene could be set by simulating drawing of the appropriate landscape while showing the audience what date it is in an unobtrusive way.
This minimalistic style was completed with the use of men with sticks in the opening section to smoothly alter the scene as they turned from fences into paddocks and anything else necessary.
You might think that all these men plus the men operating the horses and the main characters themselves would create a cluttered stage but directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris ensured the space was used so well that everything and everyone was perfectly balanced and aesthetically pleasing at all times.
But onto the stuff that everyone really talks about: the horses are absolutely wonderful. From seeing young Joey tentatively figure out his surroundings to his majestic, adult self bursting onto the rear of the stage, he is always triumphant.
Even when it is just him and Topthorn, his foe turned friend in the army, they fill the stage with a dynamism that is entirely down to intelligent and sensitive puppetry miles ahead of anything else in the theatre world. The humour conveyed through a simple goose puppet needs a special mention as it was so fantastic.
Elsewhere, Young truly seems full of care for Joey, Alistair Brammer as Billy Narracott stands out as Albert’s uncertain cousin, shaky and lost in the trenches, and the whole cast is so strong around them that it would be impossible to mention all who captured the audience’s hearts. Suffice to say you’ll be the odd one out if you don’t sob at least once in the second half (as I was).
An extra treat for this National Theatre Live event was the interview with Michael Morpurgo, whose book the play is based on, and Marianne Elliott in the interval. They offered some interesting insight.
Morpurgo suggested the play’s success is because it’s about the “universal sadness of war that resonates with everyone” as well as a love of the animals. Elliott described it as “old fashioned storytelling” with “lots of people coming on stage” and “no big star”.
This formula certainly seems to work and the puppeteers are collective stars enough. The standing ovation was well deserved.