Regional Theatre Review: War Horse

Date Posted: 03/01/2018

“A simply stunning and moving production that takes you on a journey through the senses”, GLT reviews War Horse at the New Theatre in Oxford.

It’s not very often I leave the theatre, after seeing a show, speechless with red eyes after admittedly shedding a few tears. But after witnessing the spectacle that is the War Horse production, I was lost for words.

What begins with a simple yet stunning set, the performance had the audience captivated from the very start; a screen, designed to look like a ripped page from a notebook, graces the stage throughout, helping to move the play along.

You could almost hear the hairs stand on their edges when we were introduced to Joey. You cannot help but be moved and astonished by the way the life-sized horses, performed by members of the South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, are brought to life. The horses breathe, gallop, charge and show sense and feeling in the most realistic way, from the way their ears twitch to the noises they make. It didn’t take long for us to forget that these beautiful creatures were not real horses.

They are puppets, but only in the sense of the word and like no puppets I’ve seen before. It really is true that the audience themselves bring these structures to life, they capture your imagination and within moments you stop seeing the people operating the puppets. 

Joey (Anna Chessher, Chris Charles & Samuel Parker) & Topthorne (Tom Quinn, Dominic Ramsden & Nicky Cross). Photo by Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff.

Picture: Joey (Anna Chessher, Chris Charles & Samuel Parker) & Topthorne (Tom Quinn, Dominic Ramsden & Nicky Cross). Photo by Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff. 

Based on the much-loved children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the War Horse story is familiar to many; set during the outbreak of World War One it follows teenager Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis) whose beloved horse Joey is sold to the Cavalry to serve on the frontline in 1914 France. He’s soon caught up in enemy fire and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides, before finding himself in no man’s land. Albert, who stayed on his parents’ farm in Devon, cannot forget Joey and sets out on a dangerous mission to find him and bring him home.

We were on the edge of our seats and rooting for Joey during the well-known and very intense ‘ploughing’ scene with emotions from all sides running high. And it didn’t stop there. We were almost jumping out of our seats as we’re taken from rural Devon to the unimaginable conditions of the bloody Battlefields in France; with gunshots and explosions unfolding in front of the audience. The stage is littered with body parts and dead horses as the death and destruction of war is laid bare.

Soldiers' line-up. Photo by Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff.

Picture: Soldiers' line-up. Photo by Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff. 

What makes this performance so unique, apart from all of the above, is that there are no sing-along numbers or laugh out loud comedy. It’s very dark in places, and that has to be expected from the story, and the terrors of war. But there are just enough light moments to fill you with hope of what’s to come and touches of humour. I loved the comedic puppet goose, performed beautifully by Billy Irving, always trying to get in the Narracott’s house. And the camaraderie between Albert and David (Toyin Omari-Kinch) before they risk their lives and go ‘over the top’ on the frontline helps give the audience a glimmer of light and hope in such utterly dark circumstances.

The puppets, operated by an amazing team of puppeteers, are the clear stand-out performers of the show but the National Theatre cast are equally as incredible. There are too many to mention but they all deserve so much admiration for bringing the story to life and more; the acting is faultless, the plight of the characters, alongside the majestic horses, is heartfelt. The strained relationships Albert has with his mother (Jo Castleton) and father (Jasper William Cartwright) are so powerfully played out. Just some of the other performances that stand out are that of Peter Becker, who plays the German soldier Friedrich and Emilie (Joelle Brabban), the young French girl who proves that there is love and warmth even during times of war.

During the 145-minute (approximate) production, you really are taken through such an array of emotions; from despair and grief to pure joy and happiness. It’s no surprise that most of the audience had tears streaming down their faces on several moments during the performance.

Thomas Dennis as Albert with Joey. Photo by Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff.

Picture: Thomas Dennis as Albert with Joey. Photo by Birgit & Ralf Brinkhoff. 

War Horse has achieved eight record-breaking years in London’s West End and has played to more than seven million people across the world. But you truly have to see it yourself to appreciate the astounding reviews by so many; powerful and poignant, it really is the production that should be at the top of your list for 2018. Just make sure you have the tissues at the ready!

War Horse is touring UK venues until February 2019. Group travel organisers should contact their chosen venue for information on group rate and packages.

For more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org/shows/war-horse-on-tour

More about Oxford's New Theatre

There has been a theatre on the corner of George Street, Oxford, for almost 170 years; the first was built in 1836 and was most commonly known as the ‘Vic’. Now owned by The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the 1,785-capacity New Theatre offers leading productions from opera and ballets to hit musicals and sell-out pop concerts.

Group rates are available for a number of shows throughout the year and can be booked through www.atgtickets.com.

Reviewer: Keeley Rodgers

 

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