This amazing award-winning show gallops into Milton Keynes this week to huge acclaim.
I have a confession. I had never seen War Horse before. I had never seen the show, read the novel or seen the film. I didn’t even realise there was a film. The truth is that I don’t like horses. I know, I’m not a normal girl, but I’m also not keen on war so a show that encompasses war and horses had never been one I thought I would like. The mascara running down my face at the end of the night tells a very different story. Be ready with tissues as this is one of the most moving pieces I have ever seen.
The story is about a horse that eventually goes to war. Yes, the title does what it says on the tin, but we are on that journey with the characters every step of the way. Set in Devon (but honestly, it could be anywhere rural including Ireland), a horse is up for auction and a bidding battle starts between two brothers who both want the horse. Ted wins but as a bit of a drunk he knows his wife, Rose, will not be happy as he spent the mortgage money for the farm on it. Their son, Albert, is delighted to have a horse to train and names him Joey. He bonds with the horse straight away and they grow together with mutual affection and love. Ted during one drunken bet with his brother says he can win the cost of the horse back from his brother if Joey can plough. Albert is very upset but teaches Joey to plough so the horse can be his and wins the bet. Ted has money always on his mind so when the First World War breaks out in 1914, Ted hears that he could get 100 pounds for Joey – he sells him without Albert knowing. Albert is heartbroken but the Lieutenant James Nicholls, promises he will return him after the war. He tells Albert he has sketched them both.
Poor Joey – ripped away from the boy he loves and into an environment of war is challenging for him. He makes friends with Topthorn, another horse and they support each other. This may at first sight be a story about war and horse – but actually it’s a story about love and relationships. A love of animals, how they break down language barriers and how strong our bonds are with animals. Thomas Dennis plays the central role of Albert and he is perfect in the role. I really felt for him and Thomas really demonstrates an affection for Joey so much you forget he is a puppet rather a real horse. Its real love and commitment and Thomas plays it so well that there were tears in the audience before the interval. Rose is played by Jo Castleton as the hard done by wife and Jo plays her brilliantly, as we really do feel for her and her hardships with her low life drunk of a husband. Jo plays Rose as a strong woman who is the centre of her family. Her drunken husband is Gwilym Lloyd who is great in the role and plays a drunk very well. Gwilym has real talent to portray this dad who doesn’t really understand the love his son has for his horse. The truth is there were probably a lot of people like Ted back then.
Holding the show together and linking the scenes is celebrated folk musician, Bob Fox, as Song Man. His voice is so beautiful I could listen to it forever. What a perfect way to link the story together, narrate the story and bring atmosphere to the show. I need to mention the outstanding performance of Fredrick Muller played by Peter Becker as his emotional performance was truly memorable. He really helped the audience see the German side of the war, how behind the officer was a man who missed his family and didn’t want to be in the war anymore. We could empathise with the role completely. Well done Peter. Outstanding performance.
The real stars of the show are the puppets and puppeteers. Joey has every head nod and ear twitch nailed so you allow the magic to wash over you and believe he is a real horse. The puppeteers are phenomenal – not just for Joey and Topthorn but for the goose, the birds; all the elements that give these puppets real characters. Its without a doubt the best puppetry I have ever experienced.
Michael Morpurgo’s remarkable story of courage, loyalty and friendship between a boy and a horse is an amazing show and highly recommended. Its even more moving set against the backdrop of the First World War. Its an emotional piece of theatre.
War Horse is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Sat 06 Oct 2018.