Theatre review: War Horse (5/5)
When the author Michael Morpurgo was researching what started out as a children’s book, he discovered that an estimated 10 million army horses perished in the First World War.
His book went stratospheric and the stage version has been seen by seven million theatregoers, touched by the moving tale of a horse and his young owner which has entranced audiences worldwide.
“War Horse is not simply a show or a play about a war, a horse and a boy,” he said. “It is an anthem for peace, and reflects, I think, a universal longing for a world without war.”
Indeed there were children in the audience at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre who clearly engaged with the narrative as a kind of live history lesson.
Set before and during World War One, War Horse tells of the journey of Joey and his master, teenager Albert, who teaches him to work on the family’s farm in Devon.
This is no ordinary plough horse, Albert (Thomas Dennis) teaches Joey endearing tricks and the bond between horse and master is touching.
Steven Spielberg brought the story to life in his 2011 film version, but it is the puppetry in the theatre show which is the real star.
From the opening scenes with Joey as a foal, South Africa’s Handspring Puppetry are astoundingly convincing in capturing equine characteristics, with the players also conveying every neigh and snort combined with beautiful balletic movements.
The physical performers are very nuanced and there are sighs from the audience as these giant puppets are so beguiling and believable. It is so physical that there are twelve puppeteers playing the horses in rotation in different performances.
This production sold out when it came to Edinburgh in 2014 and is expecting a similar demand for this run.
The sets by Rae Smith capture the desolation of war, saying she wanted to capture the “poetic” rather than the “documentary realism” of the conflict.
Toby Sedgwick, director of movement and horse choreography, surely a one-off title in the theatrical world, pulls off the seemingly impossible. No wonder this show won a Tony award on Broadway.
It also features rousing a cappella vocals and a stand-out from “Song Man” Bob Fox who keeps the narrative on track.
The closing scenes are breath-taking and heart-stopping and there were a few sniffles from the crowd with a rousing ensemble all singing finale. This is truly spectacular theatre and unmissable.
War Horse is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh until Saturday May 12, evenings at 7.30pm and some matinees throughout the run.