A night of theatrical magic

Changing face of war: a frightened Joey, from the lost age of horse soldiers, comes face to face with the new cavalry, tanks. Pictures Ellie Kurttze

War Horse

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

EVERY so often the curtain rises on a production which makes you realise and remember what a poorer place the world would be without theatre.

War Horse is such a creation, a piece of theatrical magic, which is dramatic, sad, tragic, funny and at times incredibly moving.

You can only marvel at the stagecraft needed to bring Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel superbly to life in a production where design, lighting and direction deserve equal billing with fine acting and stunning puppetry. 

Mum and dad, Karen Henthorn and Steven Hillman, with news from the front

The puppets, from the Handspring Puppetry Company, with a rotating cast of 12 puppeteers operating Joey and Topthorn, are the heartbeat of the story of Albert, an illiterate Devon farm boy and his love for his horse Joey, set again

st the horrors of the First World War. The switch of puppets, in literally a flash, from the young Joey as a foal to a full grown hunter is just breathtaking in its execution.

Joey and Topthorn, the officer's thoroughbred are the puppetry stars – along with a rather nosey goose – and such is the power of this National Theatre production that although it is obvious to anyone you are watching giant artworks made of cane, fabric, wires and rods, operated skillfully by three humans, imagination takes over. All the audience ever see - and shed the odd tear for - are two horses with their own characters and personalities.

Lee Armstrong is a strong Albert, believable as the farmer's son who first nurtures the young Joey, teaches him to plough to win a suicidal wager, with Joey as the stake,  made by his drunken father, and then lies about his age to sign up and follow Joey to First World War France after his father sells the horse to the army for £100.

Apparently the British Army took a million horses to war in France – just 62,000 returned.

Steven Hillman gives us a weak, pig-headed, abusive father as Ted, a man who is bitter about his past, too often lets drink do his talking in his long running feud and rivalry with his brother Arthur (David Fleeshman). 

Capt Stewart, James Alper, in a futile and fatal cavalry charge

It is that sibling  rivalry which saw him, tankard in hand, spend his farm's mortgage money in paying an outlandish 39 guineas for Joey as a foal just  to outbid Arthur, who wanted the horse for his son, Billy.

Karen Henthorn as Ted's sharp-tongued wife Rose keeps him in line, at least she does when he is not sinking cider in the pub but there is more to worry about then Ted's drinking with a dark shadow moving across the land; The Great War is about to change the world for ever.

Ted, despite having promised that Joey was Albert's horse, goes back on his word and falls for the lure of cash, selling him to the Army while Arthur, afraid his son might be labelled a coward, like his Uncle Ted, signs Billy up to fight for his country – it's the King's shilling rather than £100 for Billy as Arthur unwittingly signs away his son's life.

The horrors of war are magnificently portrayed with little more than explosions and stark, harsh white lighting. When Joey and Topthorn, along with two skeletal horses are forced to pull a heavy gun we can feel the strain and the pain, we can experience the horror and futility of the a cavalry charge against machine guns and through barbed wire.

Explaining the charge is impossible, just accept that, for a few moment, you were there, on the Western Front in 1914.

The appearance of a tank is another intense moment, a skeletal giant lit harshly by a blinding white light behind. Light and dark alone can be potent forces on an empty stage.

 Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, played by Martin Wenner with Topthorn in the background 

We are introduced to Capt Stewart (James Alper) and Lt Nicholls, cavalry officers fighting a war from another age, then there are the eager raw recruits, expecting to be home by Christmas 1914, with the likes of Sgts Fine (Adam Foster) and Allen (Simeon Truby) and Thunder (Sean Armstrong) trying to lick them into shape and keep them alive.

War has two sides so we also come across Germans, in particular Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, played by Martin Wenner, who sinks into despair as he realises what war has done to him after he almost kills a young French girl, Emilie (Nisa Cole) by accident.

There is an amusing, and very human exchange, when Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire in no man's land after running blindly way from the battle and noise of the tank attack and both German and British troops co-operate under a truce to rescue him. A toss of a coin takes Joey back to British lines and, despite a few more ordeals, a happy ending.

Narrating the story in traditional song is North East folk singer Bob Fox as the Song Maker while a huge cast, more than 30 strong give an authentic, solid feel to crowd scenes and battles.

Sgt Thunder, (Sean McKenzie) has a few words of welcome for Albert (Lee Armstrong)

The design by Rae Smith is a bare stage relying on a few poles held by crowds for an auction ring, doorframes for farms and hospitals all below a giant cloud which carries video images in chalk and charcoal drawings and animations from Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of 59 Productions.

Thus the scene is set by costumes and minimal props and images of farms, battles, ships, troops and the havoc of war with the only real colour an image of bright red poppies – surely one of the most poignant, recognisable and iconic images ever.

The production is beautifully lit by Paule Constable while the dramatic sound is designed by Christopher Shutt. The clever lighting allows the rear of the stage to be almost an extension of the wings as we see crowds appear and descend on the market or troops emerge from the darkness into the gloom of a charge over no man's land – it even helps create that magical transformation from foal to full grown Joey.

The sound of battle can be deafening while floods of blinding light into the audience assault the senses and burn black and white images into imagination.

Timing and synchronisation of light and sound is much down to computers but that hardly makes it any less impressive.

Directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris - Alex Sims is the director on tour – bring the action even closer to the audience.

Light and dark add drama as British troops go over the top to attack German lines

The front row becomes the front line turned into the opposing trenches as British and German troops peer over the edge of the stage with periscopes to see Joey trapped in the wire, while Joey trots up and down the aisle so close he brushed my leg.

Nick Stafford has adapted a childrens' story, albeit a very good one, so it is not surprising to find at its heart a simple, easy to follow adventure story with its fair share of sentimentality, but this is much more than that. It is powerful theatre with all the elements working together to create almost three hours of sheer magic. The standing ovation at the end was both deserved and unanimous.

The show is sold out* at Birmingham Hippodrome so if you have a ticket guard it with your life. This is a landmark theatrical event that simply should not be missed. To 09-11-13.

Roger Clarke

This is the first UK tour of the National Theatre production, a production which opened in 2007 and has been seen by almost 5 million people around the world, had more than 1,000 actors appear in it, was made into a hit film by Steven Spielberg, and has made Michael Morpurgo  into a household name.

*The show is fully booked apart from a few single seats in the rear circle so if you have tickets but cannot attend for any reason contact the Hippodrome to return your tickets, less a small administration charge, and to inquire about returns contact 0844 338 5000 (calls cost from 5p per min).

The show is given a minimum age guidance of 10 and children under five will not be admitted.

War Horse rides off next to The Lowry in Salford, the Lowry in Manchester, (Nov) Edinburgh's Festival Theatre (Jan 2014), The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton (Feb), Ireland's Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin (Mar), Sunderland Empire (April) Alhambra Theatre, Bradford (May), the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff (June)  with the tour ending at The Lowry again in July next year.

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