Review: War Horse (New London Theatre, London)

What’s it all about?

One man and his dog is so last century; now, it’s all about one man and his horse. This is the story of Albert, a young farm boy, who befriends a horse named Joey after his father has a moment of compulsive shopping disorder down the market and buys a horse instead of a cow. Charged with bringing up Joey so that he can be sold when he is older, Albert forms a partnership with Joey, only for Joey to be sent to war to help with the efforts against Germany. And while we follow Joey’s journey in the war and the English, German and French comrades who look after him, Albert enlists in an effort to find his equine friend once again. But does he succeed?

The words…

It’s clear from the off that Nick Stafford’s script is geared towards families. There’s a storybook feel to the opening that sees the Songman introduce proceedings while walking around watching the action, and he periodically comes back to comment (via song) on what’s taking place. Throughout, scenes are short and snappy, and I found myself wanting certain segments to go on for longer. The entire scene in the trenches while Joey is trapped in the barbed wire is a good example of where extending the dialogue would have helped give the production more weight. Instead, one scenes jumps into the next, which helps keep the momentum, but ultimately makes the whole thing seem quite light. Still, the (huge number of) children in the audience were for the most part captivated, so it’s hard to fault the words on the basis that they do a good job of keeping all ages entertained.

There’s a separate issue here though, and that’s the hammy dialogue. Presumably another decision to keep all ages entertained, it just about works, but is a constant reminder that this is a story and not to be taken seriously.

The talent…

Let’s not kid ourselves, the talent here is the puppeteers who all do a fantastic job of bringing Joey and Topthorn to life. The movement that they inject into the puppetry is so natural, and while you never quite forget that they are there, the puppets and the actors do look and act as one. But it’s the sounds they make that really impressed me – through combining their voices they perfectly recreated the noises of the horses and brought them to life.

Supporting the puppetry is a surprisingly large cast who all play a largely physical role in recreating the countryside and the battle scenes. As Joey’s pal, Albert, James Backway brings a goofiness that makes the boy almost as loveable as his horse, while Alasdair Craig as Friedrich Müller is the German you can’t help but side with in the second act. For the most part, the remainder of the cast do a very good job with the hammy dialogue, but there are a couple of roles that felt either miscast or out of place; I couldn’t help but think that Captain Nicholls felt too young for the position of power, while Sergeant ‘effing’ Thunder should never have made it out of the rehearsal room.

The design…

The designs by Rae Smith are simple to say the least. A single strip of torn paper stretches across a black stage, upon which projections of hand drawn sketches are displayed. The sketches help place the action, with dates to show the point in history and vague locations. It’s simple but it works. However, can someone please tell me what the point of installing a revolve was…? Outside of the basic design, there’s not a lot going on, with the only set pieces being a couple of doors and buckets, a few dead horses and burnt bodies, and a tank that comes on for all of thirty seconds in what was clearly supposed to be a visually impressive moment but that just fell quite flat.

On the whole I was quite disappointed with the visual element. Once the initial awe at the horse puppetry had died down, it needed more showcase moments, but they were few and far between, and if anything it was Paule Constable’s lighting design that did the most to lift the visuals creating some rather stunning atmospheres on stage.

The special mention…

It would be unfair to give this to anyone other than the Handspring Puppet Company, whose designs for both young and old Joey and for Topthorn are now iconic in theatre design. They looked impressive and moved so naturally, and without them there’s no chance that War Horse would have been running for the past nine years.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

By the end I found myself wanting to watch the adult version of War Horse; the one with blood and swearing, and scenes that were longer than five minute long. Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s production packs in plenty to please the families, and visually is striking (at least to begin with) but the script was hammy and there’s only just enough here to keep the adults entertained. While it closes next month, if it was on for longer, I’m not sure I’d be making a return trip.

War Horse is playing at the New London Theatre until 12th March 2016 before embarking on a UK tour. Tickets for the remainder of the West End run are available from the National Theatre website.

And the view…

Stalls, row I, seat 35. This was a great spot to enjoy the show from. It was close enough to see the detail but far enough away to get a better sense of scale in the bigger moments. It was also pretty comfortable, considering the length of the production and there was a decent amount of legroom. Slight aside, but this was my first time going to the New London Theatre and what a grim place it is. Similar in design to the National Theatre, if the NT was the Waitrose of the theatre world, the New London would be the Farmfoods.

New London Theatre, Stalls, Row I, Seat 35
New London Theatre, Stalls, Row I, Seat 35

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