I first saw War Horse on a school trip when I was 12. Crisp packets were being thrown over my head, muddy school shoes kicking the seats, and screams as the class bully pulled the girl’s pigtails. I sat in awe, jaw open, silently being sucked under the early 1900s, blissfully ignorant as the madness of overexcitable school children whirled around me
Funny that I return to the show 8 years later and find myself in a very similar situation. Sat on the end of the press section surrounded by a pack of school children, albeit they were much better behaved than my school ever was.
On it’s tenth anniversary the National Theatre production stands as strong as ever at the beginning of a three week run at the Bristol Hippodrome. The Michael Morpurgo story is originally written from the perspective of Joey the horse who finds himself caught up in the war, but the adaptation by Nick Stafford allows the tale of heroism to transcribe wonderfully onto stage.
Overheard multiple times was the line, “You just forget it’s not a real horse.” I will happily second that, the puppets are incredibly clever and the operators even more so for capturing such life-like movements of the horses. The effortless puppeteering is just one of many effective techniques used to immerse you into the story. Young Albert, played by Thomas Dennis was innocent and endearing and drew you in for you to experience the emotional battle as strongly as you feel the literal gun shots resonate around the auditorium. This combination of a powerful story and the raw side of World War One is simply spine chilling.
A huge ensemble of at least 40 members allowed the show to be slow paced but never boring, something which very few productions manage. Dynamic transitions and clever minimal scenery allowed the A Level Theatre student inside me to be extremely satisfied.
The staging is not often spoken about with this production as the focus is on the heart wrenching story and sob factor, which I have touched on. The simplistic stage with little to no set, lighting that fooled you into thinking the stage went on for miles and accordion folk music from a narrator during time passing and scene changes all worked well to keep the focus on the performance.
The evening rounded off with a speech from Tom Morris, one of the original directors of the show. He touched on how far the production had come, the hurdles it had overcome and the fact that without the audience using their imaginations the work and magic put on stage before you simply wouldn’t work.
This honestly is a one of a kind show and there aren’t really any words to do it justice. I cannot recommend it enough.