War Horse - January 2015
With a fortnight to go War Horse is playing to packed house at the Bristol Hippodrome.
The National Theatre’s hugely successful production of War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling novel, is the powerful story of a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who is requisitioned to fight for the British in World War I.
As you will see in the preview, printed below, I saw the London production at the New London Theatre when a coach full of people from Nailsea travelled to the capital for a weekend jaunt and it is one of my best ever shows.
My two older daughters took their father for his 70th birthday present this month to see it at Bristol and because of my preview they went with high expectations.
The younger of the two said: “Despite it being puppets you soon get sucked into the action which was a bit graphic and the subject matter is upsetting.
“There were some lighter almost humorous asides but for the most it was man’s inhumanity to animals and fellow soldiers.”
I replied: “The title should have given you a clue – war is bloody.”
However, their father loved it – blood and guts included.
Caught in enemy crossfire it tells the story of a horse called Joey who ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man’s Land while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home.
It is a remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship, at the heart of which is ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing and galloping horses to life on stage.
It begins with a stiff legged colt appearing at market.
Practically Perfect Mums critic Jane Batt, of Portishead, loved it.
She said: “While I’m impressed by the authenticity of his equine sounds and movements, I’m initially aware of the presence of three puppeteers handling him.
“Glimmers of puppetry genius emerge when the skittish colt ventures over to eat oats from a metal bucket, but when he dramatically transforms into a handsome stallion (blink and you’ll miss it) and is mounted by a rider, the spectacular illusion is complete and the audience erupts into spontaneous applause.
“While we’re aware that the puppeteers are still there, the proud equine stance, clip-clopping hooves, flapping ears and swishing tail are so convincing, the visible human legs and hands pale into insignificance.
“Having stumbled into a world where giant horses grace the stage of The Bristol Hippodrome, I’m reminded even more strongly of the tremendous skill of the puppeteers when, as they leave the body of a dying animal, the abandoned carcass becomes eerily still, bringing to mind the horror of many thousands of horses lost in World War One.
“Along with many other audience members, tears are shed by my neighbour, a radio show presenter, who tells me afterwards that she keeps horses and is quite shocked to note that my own eyes are dry.”
The set changes smoothly and fluidly.
A huge projection screen across the top of the stage is fashioned in the shape a page ripped from an artist’s sketchbook, with pencil drawings quickly transforming the setting from a landscape to a floating cloud; from the Devon countryside to a French battlefield.
A solitary door and suspended window drop into place before an ‘infinite’ black backdrop, creating a farm scene. Farmhands hold poles horizontally to create a fence.
Harsh ‘headlights’ directed towards the audience from the rear of the stage are used effectively to reinforce the impression of danger and tension.
During the enlisting scene where eligible men are persuaded to take the King’s Shilling and others encouraged to sell their horses for the war cause, a sequence of flashes and ‘frozen’ actors give the impression of a significant moment being captured for posterity.
Jane added: “It’s hard to choose a favourite scene as so many of them are effective but I found the macabre remains from the battlefield overlapping into the subsequent scene of village life particularly moving.”
When Michael Morpurgo wrote the book he wanted to do so in a way that didn’t take sides and, like the meeting of the British and German troops at Christmas in Oh What A Lovely War.
And Jane agreed: “The war scenes are shocking.
“There are surprises, brutality, flashing lights, loud bangs and of course death. The absurdity of a mounted soldier bravely charging towards machine gun fire is sickening.
“This is a story of war so not surprisingly there’s some bad language but some of it’s been tempered, such as ‘effing’ rather than ‘f**cking’.”
War Horse is a stunning production.
The stage is interesting, scene changes are seamless and we’re led through a range of emotions.
Dialogue is interspersed with songs and folk music but music isn’t the star of this show: the magnificent horses are.
Into battle with War Horse at Hippodrome
The War Horse is in my top five shows of all time.
I saw it in London – then I saw the film and read the book – but the stage show is much better.
So buy your tickets now and take a hankie because it is a real tear jerker.
War Horse opens at the Bristol Hippodrome on Wednesday, January 14.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling novel and co-directed by Bristol’s Tom Morris and National Theatre associate director Marianne Elliot it is set to run until Valentine’s Day, Saturday, February 14.
War Horse is the powerful story of a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been requisitioned to fight for the British in World War I.
Caught in enemy crossfire, Joey ends up serving on both sides during the war before landing in No Man’s Land, while Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home.
A remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship, War Horse features ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing and galloping horses to life on stage.
The company will come to Bristol directly from a sell-out season in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa.
Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris said: “ I'm absolutely thrilled that War Horse is coming to Bristol.
“When I arrived in the city in 2009, the thing I was most often asked was whether I would be bringing War Horse to Bristol.
“Of course I had to explain that the show simply wouldn't fit on the Old Vic Stage, but that I would do my best to bring Handspring to Bristol instead, which we did with the riotous Midsummer Night's Dream.
“But now, finally, it's happening!
“Through the brilliant collaboration with the National Theatre, who continue to advocate powerfully for the importance of theatre in the regions and have been powerful allies of Bristol Old Vic since the Bristol Old Vic Company was founded in 1946, and Howard Panter's Ambassador Theatre Group – who already invest in the development of new writing and new musical theatre in Bristol and the South West.”
This is the teary face of North Somerset author Louise Douglas when she left the Bristol Hippodrome this week - you have been warned it is a tearjerker