As I sat down to watch War Horse, I had one niggling reservation: having had a notoriously bad equestrian experience, could a play about a horse win me over?
War Horse is the story of a teenage boy called Albert (Sion Daniel Young) and his horse, Joey. Having nurtured him from a young age, Albert is forced to say goodbye to Joey when he is sold to the army after WW1 breaks out. At 16 years old, Albert is too young to serve in the war, but is determined to find a way to be reunited with his beloved horse.
The technical production is essential to the success of this play, particularly the use of puppets. The idea of having people on stage controlling the puppets might seem distracting, but you soon forget they are there. The Handspring Puppet Company’s attention to detail brings them to life – the way the puppet horses jump, breathe and move their tails creates the on stage presence of ‘real’ horses.
The staging seems to anticipate a sceptic like me. At the start of the play, Joey is a young foal, controlled by a trio of fairly small actors. As Albert and Joey’s relationship develops I found myself thinking: this horse is really realistic but it’s a shame Albert can’t ride him or he’d crush those small people. Just as the thought crossed my mind, Joey the foal is replaced by Joey the fully-grown horse, and Albert hops on and gallops away – it’s quite the spectacle.
The whole production is somewhat cinematic – at one point during a battle scene, a huge tank emerges, heading out towards the audience. The battle scenes aren’t long, drawn-out affairs, but brief and effective, using techniques such as slow motion when the horses charge. There’s also a projection above the stage which provides context – dates and locations, as well as extra visual detail such as the shadows of soldiers falling down as they die.
The scenes between Albert and Joey are particularly moving, with a strong emotional connection between horse and boy, emotion that is enhanced by live music on stage, including a violin and accordion.
Primarily a story about a boy and his horse, the play also explores the futility of war. A love of horses reveals common ground between English soldiers, a young French girl named Emilie and German soldier, Friedrich Muller.
By the closing scene I was moved to tears by Joey the horse. Would War Horse win me over? I had, it seems, answered my own question.
War Horse is now booking until February 2014 at:
New London Theatre
Box Office: 020 7452 3000