REVIEW: War Horse


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War Horse


REVIEW: War Horse by the National Theatre at the Mayflower

Nobody in this show needs a reviewer like me to tell them how good War Horse is. Ten years should more than adequately have done that already. This is the second UK tour which carries through until 2019. It’s apt that we’re seeing it in the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War.

No, what is important is that the story and the message of what happened in the First World War gets to new audiences. That is my job, and it’s an honour to do so.

War Horse

After all, there was a new generation of audience here tonight – schoolchildren who would have only been a few years old when Michael Morpurgo’s book was written.

Since then, there has been the film. But as Michael himself says in the programme notes, seven million people have seen the play and that is where it comes alive: on the stage.

A thousand actors have also taken part – including Michael himself.

War Horse

The story is simple and inspired by real events. Ten million people died in this war. Villages here in Hampshire were ripped apart. An entire generation of men was lost.

Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) wants to join up but he’s too young. Somehow he enlists, and his horse, Joey ends up in France with him. They get split up and we’re all willing them to get home.

Various parts of the story are projected onto a huge ripped-out piece of paper, including superb line drawings and animated weather effects.

War Horse

Then there are the two horses, played in rotation by twelve puppeteers… each horse with three people in each performance. Their movements and mannerisms – and consequently those of the horses – are sublime, perfectly observed, perfectly executed. As the performance progresses, you only see horses on stage, not the humans. Yes, it’s THAT good.

As you can see from the above picture, those puppets extend to a goose and flying birds.

War Horse

There are inevitably some deeply sad moments, most in the heat of battle. Expressions on faces (above) are extraordinary as it’s all done in slow motion.

Lighting is important in a show of this size, and I was impressed by the stark white lights placed just above the heads of actors which gave an added sense of claustrophobia and fear as the soldiers marched forward (see image below).

War Horse

The realisation that you’re in the middle of a battlefield is when the explosions start. They are so realistic and so loud that the whole theatre shakes.

Cleverly placed speakers behind you give the impression that bullets are flying over your head.

The sensation is enhanced by a life size field gun. Then you suddenly realise there’s a tank on stage. A tank!

War Horse

At the end, I have no hesitation in admitting I was emotionally drained. People around me were crying – but they loved the (genuinely funny) comedy bits too.

Congratulations to the many people both on stage and off who contribute to this story of honour and courage, of fear and desperation – and of futility. The music, songs and effects only add to the most powerful show I have ever seen on stage.

If you haven’t seen this, put it on your bucket list. Watch it with fear and trepidation – much of it from behind your hands.

Laugh in the right places… cry bucket loads.

Tell your friends. Go with your friends.

But above all, go.

Kevin Gover