Come for the heartwarming story of a boy named Albert and his pet horse Joey, stay for a magnificent display of theatre like you’ve never seen before. War Horse is a breathtaking production that combines sophisticated engineering, aesthetic impact and theatrical performance at its purest.
Set in the 1910s against the backdrop of World War I, War Horse is an exploration of the timeless elements of the human experience: friendship, family, conflict, war, loyalty, courage, trials, and triumph. It is a glimpse into the lives of regular people in different places and circumstances, knitted together through the challenges of war and the extraordinary adventures of a horse called Joey.
We are first introduced to Joey as a foal, purchased by Albert’s father for a recklessly exorbitant price to spite his brother, and raised lovingly by Albert, who values this horse above everything else. There is astonishing realism in the depiction of Joey – and indeed all the animals and birds in the show – a true theatrical achievement, considering that the creatures are neither real nor computerized effects, but rather complex, life-size puppets, worn and operated by actors who hide in plain sight and play the creatures to perfection. There is much creative beauty in this show, but the puppetry is easily the jewel in the crown. Swishing tails, laboured snorts, twitching ears, weighted gait, perfectly timed sound effects and more, all bear witness to the faithful study and replication of real animal behaviour without a trace of that often lazily-applied shortcut, anthropomorphism.
The story, based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, while effective and stirring, is sometimes also fantastical and formulaic. The show guides its audience from one emotional experience to the next, punctuating a series of feel-good scenes with well-spaced moments of alternating comedic impact and tension, which escalate with predictable steadiness until the end. However, this is a rollercoaster that the audience is eager and willing to travel on, knowing that it is not really the story but the art that is properly in focus.
War Horse is beautifully and sensitively made, convincingly performed, gorgeously sung, and appeals on many levels, but most particularly in its treatment of animals. It gives them visibility, but not by giving them a voice drawn from human projections. Instead, it simply creates space for them to be seen as they are, to be acknowledged for their role in the world, and especially in times of need, conflict and war. There is much in this show that is sobering and worthy of an emotional response, but the real tears are shed for the animals – not just Joey and his horse friend Topthorn, but also the unnamed others that fall during the war.