War Horse – Imaginative, powerful and atmospheric

Live screening from New Theatre, London

Torch Theatre, Milford Haven – 27th February 2014

This tale of companionship between a boy and his horse started out as a book by Michael Morpurgo and is now an internationally acclaimed play. The story takes us from Albert’s family home in rural Dorset, to the trenches of the first World War. Morpurgo sites the universal horrors of war and the theme of hope and reconciliation as the reason for his novel’s success, so long after it was first published in 1982.

Albert’s father makes a drunken bid on a horse, which Albert vows to care for and train as a farm horse. The bond between them is beautifully played out by Jack Loxton who fights to protect Joey from the moment they first step into the paddock. And his loyalty eventually leads him on a dangerous mission to war.

The South African string puppet company provide the artistic brilliance. Full scale horses built from steel, leather and aircraft cables are operated by puppeteers with such precision as to render them invisible and their puppets living, breathing, galloping horses. It is impossible not to be astounded by the visionary spectacle which is like nothing seen before on UK stage.

Christopher Dickins is the German sergeant, sick with the horror of the war, takes Joey and another horse Topthorn into his care and despairs when they are forced into battle. The flogged horses with their torn, colourless hides and lifeless eyes are the ultimate depiction of suffering and injustice.

Simple staging enhances the emotional impact and the focus on character. In Dorset, poles act as fences, birds wobble on hand operated wires, a man pushes a goose around the farm for comic effect. This works in parallel with the puppetry element. The lighting is warm and light during early scenes, with live folk music creating a sense of peace and nostalgia.

War scenes are accompanied with dark lighting, smoke, and army songs set against the backdrop of gunfire and explosions as soldiers march into battle. The puppeteers are exceptional at creating atmosphere and emotion in the horses, particularly in a harrowing scene on no man’s land which unintentionally brings the soldiers together.

War horse is ultimately a deeply moving story about hope and endurance. The combination of a small talented cast, simple staging and the spectacular use of puppets makes this a landmark theatre production.