The Lowry, Manchester – until Saturday 30th June 2018
Reviewed by Julie Noller
War Horse is currently celebrating it’s ten year anniverary on stage and shows no sign of being tamed, it should however come with a full mascara warning and a free packet of tissues.
Having read the Michael Morpurgo story of life during World War 1, told from a horses perspective with my children during their primary school days, I was acutely aware of how powerfully his words had impacted and made me weep – however that was in the comfort of my own home and I had scurried the book away to see what all the fuss was about. This was something completely different, a production adapted by the National Theatre; just how thought provoking could a puppet actually be? Oh my, I was about to discover, from the opening lines I was taken on an emotional rollercollster that would have me cheering, laughing, sitting on the edge of my seat, jumping in fright and dabbing my leaking eyes whilst trying not to sob too loudly.
Bob Fox as the Songman, took my breath away, he used folk music to open our hearts as his melodies also soothed us. The Handspring Puppet Company bring our heroes to life as we witness both the love and evil of humanity and the devastating effects of war. I never expected a puppet to show a complete range of emotions, I believed I was seeing Joey on stage, it was amazing, I am totally in awe of each and every person who brought him to life. The skill and timing was utter perfection.
War Horse begins on the eve of World War 1 in rural Devon, a young Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) attends a horse auction with his father Arthur (William Ilkley) a misguided drunken brute who despises his brother and seeks to better him no matter what. Ted Narracott (Gwilym Lloyd) see’s a young cross breed foal (part hunter part dray horse) and sets about bidding for his son Billy (Jaspar William Cartwright). Arthur bids all the money he has, 39 Guineas, to stop his brother even if it is the mortgage money, giving his son a good hiding in the process. Rose (Jo Castleton), Arthur’s long suffering yet amazingly patient wife, tasks her son to train the foal with the intentions of selling him to recoup their money. Thus we see the beginning of an unbreakable bond between man and beast as they become inseparable and the the lengths some go to in order to protect that bond.
Joey, as Albert affectionately names his new friend, is not just simply a horse, he is not a beast but an intelligent and affectionate creature who works and serves in any way he can. He gives his all despite the cruelty of life on the frontline and he deserved every one of my tears shed in honour of all those horses who gave everything that man asked of them a hundred years ago. War Horse is an extremely clever tale of survival against the odds. It tells us the story of millions of forgotten heroes who served their country well and not only that but the sad demise of old and young, many who like Albert lied about their age for sixteen is far too young to run away to serve in the trenches and battlegrounds of northern France and Belgium.
Albert who without a thought leaves the safety of Blighty and stumbles through the war in search of his best friend, his need to save Joey who had been savagely sold by Arthur for one hundred pounds. Armed with only a drawing by Lieutenant Nichols (Ben Ingles) of his beloved Joey, posted back to England after a Cavalry charge had failed and he’d been cut down too soon. It is a chance encounter with a Sergeant to whom he shows the drawing that ultimately saves Joeys life after Topthorn, his one time enemy but lifelong friend, sadly loses his life. War is an extremely gut-wrenching and sadly unavoidable event in some circumstances but the ultimate loss is innocence. Throughout War Horse there are small pockets of humour, there needs to be. From the little silly comments to the comedic goose who chases and honks. Without these War Horse threatens to be too dark and depressing.
War Horse is simply C’est Magnifique, the ultimate tale of friendships, love and loss. Of grief in an era of gentlemanly conduct of hatred and survival. I cried, my head hurt from trying not to cry, my eyes leaked where I could not contain them. I inhaled and whimpered, hugged myself. Thanking my lucky stars that my life began 60 years after the beginning of a horrendous four years in our history. I felt emotionally drained but would I do it all again? Without a doubt; yes. War Horse needs to be included in everyone’s bucket list of essential views, it will quite easily be the best thing you’ll see all year.