Celebrating the 2,000th West End performance of War Horse

Joey and Goose in War Horse at the New London Theatre, photo credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

To celebrate War Horse’s 2,000th West End performance, I decided to dig into my archives and find the review I wrote  when Handspring Puppet Company first staged its production at the Olivier theatre in 2007. War Horse has since won 24 awards, employed 850+ people and toured around the world.

Here, before the hype, before any of its five star reviews or Olivier awards, is a fourteen year old’s fledgling opinion of this production that has attained theatrical stardom…

The singer, alone, on a dark stage and the sound of folk song is resonant in the theatre.

War Horse begins with realities of family life: a drunk father bids against his more successful brother at auction for a foal that he doesn’t want; his son, a farmer’s lad, brings up the foal and they become best friends; the mother ties the family together and sticks by her husband for her son’s sake. Does this story sound familiar? Well, this is just the opening few minutes of everything that is to come.

Luke Treadaway (left) and Craig Leo in War Horse at the Olivier Theatre, photo: Telegraph

War Horse tells the story of a horse, Joey, who is sold to the war effort to be a major’s horse and is shipped off the Western Front. He fights bravely in battle, is humbled to being a cart horse and, after being captured by the Germans, is found wandering into barbed wire in No Man’s Land then rescued by the British. His master, Albert, enlists underage at 16 with the sole purpose of finding his beloved horse.

World War One begins, and the village that was once full of disputes and rivalry is united as a community and the ensemble singing creates a jolly atmosphere. The brass band, pompous and patriotic, appears to mimic the naive attitudes to war on the Home Front. Governmental propaganda painted over the truths of the horrors of the First World War. On stage this became painfully apparent. The community belted out their merry tune while the massacred bodies of the war littered the stage from the previous scene.

The puppets: their title suggests so little, yet they were so magnificent. The remarkable, wicker creations had fantastic mobility and every movement could be seen in the mechanical muscles beyond the translucent skin of the horses. Every quiver seemed to ripple through their skeleton as they breathed and responded to every slight change in their environment. The result was a horse that the audience understood; we forgot that they were beautiful works of art, which pranced upon the Olivier stage, and instead truly believed them to be the ear twitching, tail flicking, breathing life-forms that they appeared to be.

The various other puppets almost managed to steal the show. Emilie, a little girl who comes to care a lot for the horses, is a puppet manipulated by three adults. This configuration sounds as though it could not work; the ratio between three adults and a child seems too great, but it was brilliantly successful because the puppeteers worked so harmoniously with Emilie that they became background entities, as did the puppeteers with Joey. The little girl’s features did appear creepy though and, for me, that interfered with the performance. The puppeteers for the goose, the crows and the birds obviously understood their bird as a character with human-like emotions and so the little time that these puppets had on stage were made especially memorable.The costumes for the many ‘neutral actors’ and puppeteers blended with their purpose well, or added some extra quality to it. The goose’s puppeteer wore a ‘bobbly hat’, suitable for the inquisitive, angry goose.

The set was in part created by the actors; a field was a few actors holding fences and birds in the background were controlled by actors. This simplistic approach to creating scenery kept the story and puppets the focus of the audience’s attention, instead of fancy scenery that could have been a distraction. To create a house, a door was placed on stage. Nothing more was needed; the audience could use their imagination to picture the house, it was not necessary to see it.

A magnificent torn piece of ‘paper’ was a suspended as a banner that ran across the breadth of the stage. As well as being a reminder of Michael Morpurgo’s book that War Horse was adapted from, it was also used as a screen to display animations or pictures showing time, setting or details not possible to present on the stage. It was a bit like an artist’s impression of the action; a little like Major Nicholl’s sketchbook. The animations of the moving horses were like a flick book, but they served their purpose: to explain to the audience how something was happening, or when.

The scribbled dates on this banner resonated because the audience knew the action was set during the First World War and could anticipate what was to come. We knew that the war would not ‘be over by Christmas’ and we knew that as a horse was about to be shot, the war was about to end. This dramatic irony evoked the audience’s impassioned involvement.

The unlikely-hood of the meeting of Albert and Joey in the penultimate scene created disbelief, amazement and joy. The frustration, however, kicked in as we realised that Albert had been blinded by tear gas. As Albert sat, rocking tearfully saying, ‘That’s what we called him: Joey,’ Joey, wretched from war, grunted and charged to try to reach his friend. We felt helpless and exasperated that there was nothing that we could do to help. Eventually, Albert is reunited with his beloved horse and this moment was played to near perfection by Albert and Joey’s puppeteers: tears seeped from the audience’s eyes and every heart throbbed as the friends were reunited after enduring the First World War.

The horror of war was one of the main themes that Michael Morpurgo addressed in his book. I think that the story was what made this production so beautiful; the plot was so simple, because it was written for young people, yet beneath that there was something challenging to children and adults alike.

The horrors of the war were achieved in a few ways. The recruits were put through their paces by the major, one soldier had an exaggerated high voice and although the audience laughed, we knew in our hearts that a boy should not have to face what was ahead. The drum revolve, centre stage, was all that separated the British and German lines so that deathly piece of No Man’s Land was just the width of a theatre. The madly charging horses into a row of machine guns, displayed the useless situation of the horses, verses modern weapons. A life size ‘puppet tank’ remorselessly advanced, despite Joey standing bravely in its way. Carcasses, littered across the stage, horrific and incomplete; these models showed the extent of the deaths of men on the Western Front.

At no point, however, did we feel swayed towards either the British or the Germans. The fact that the production tackled the desperate atmosphere of war without any blame is incredible. It needed to be unbiased; it was not about evoking patriotism but it was about how the war was. That is why the play felt so real: not because the puppets were brilliantly life like, although they were; because the message was genuine and true to history. Even in the worst of situations, love endures all.

War Horse at the New London Theatre, photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
War Horse at the New London Theatre, photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

War Horse will be broadcast live to cinemas from the New London Theatre as part of NT Live on 27 February 2014.  

Joey was seen overlooking London this morning in celebration of the milestone performance: