Review: War Horse @ The New London Theatre *****

When I think about what my favourite shows are, musicals normally spring to mind first. This is half because I was brought up listening to Kiss Me KateSinging in the Rain, and other musicals from stage and screen, and also because you always leave with a song in your head. Of all the shows I’ve seen this year though, my top 3 goes as follows:

3) Book of Mormon at The Prince of Wales theatre.

2) Assassins, at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

And as of this week, 1) War Horse, at The New London Theatre

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

I went into this production thinking, ‘It’s the story of a boy and his horse, set in war time. I’ll enjoy it and I’m sure it’ll be moving, but I won’t cry or anything.’ Boy, was I wrong! Before the first Act was finished I was crying my eyes out, and about 20 minutes into the second Act I was gone again, sobbing for pretty much the remainder of the play. This made me realise how important an interval is: if the audience was emotionally drained from the first act, then I can’t imagine how the actors must have been feeling! Afterwards, I even tweeted the show to tell them they should sell or a least offer tissues- so many people were crying!

The current cast of War Horse is relatively new, entering their second month of performances, and it is led by the effortlessly energetic James Backway, as Albert Narracott. Literally leaping and bounding round the stage, Backway perfectly captures the childlike wonder and excitement of training the young foal Joey. You can’t help but weep at the juxtaposition between the tirelessly energetic Albert we see at the start of the play and the wearied, worn Albert but a few years later as the war and play progress.

James Backway as Albert. Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
James Backway as Albert. Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The entire Narracott clan stands out in this production. Colm Gormley plays Albert’s father Ted, and the rivalry between Ted and his brother Arthur (played by Simon Wolfe) is spot on. What starts off as humorous in the opening scenes with Joey’s auction is quickly juxtaposed with a sombre scene, as the two discuss the deaths of local villagers in war, and Ted asks Simon whether he has heard news about his son Billy. Simon Jenkins plays Billy, and gives a wholly believable portrayal of PTSD showing both its mental and physical effects, as the character develops both a stutter and twitches as time in the trenches goes on. But Jayne McKenna’s Rose Narracott is a stand out performance, reducing me to tears throughout. The relationship between Rose and Ted is comedic but is laced with underlying friction: the wife who looks after the farm and husband who gambles away the mortgage. However, McKenna’s unwavering loyalty to Ted is moving, particularly during the scene in which Albert refers to his father as ‘poor Ted’ (a moniker Arthur uses to belittle him), defending her husband who didn’t fight in the war like Arthur, but rather stayed to look after the land. Her portrayal of women during the war remind me of BBC Proms 22 in 2014, and makes me want to rewatch the BBC series behind it. This prom excerpts from War Horse interspersed with war poetry and songs including ‘Home they brought her warrior dead’, sung by the Military Wives Choir and conducted by Gareth Malone.

Colm Gormley as Ted, and Jayne McKenna as Rose. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Colm Gormley as Ted, and Jayne McKenna as Rose. Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The puppetry in this production is incredible: birds, horses, tanks and one particularly memorable geese, all our brought to life with wood and an amazing team behind them! Joey and Topthorn movements are wholly believable, cantering, trotting and jumps all choreographed, which must be hard with up to 5 or 6 actors moving different parts of the horse at once, and in perfect synchronization! The sheer size of adult Joey was completely unexpected and insane; being in the third row and seeing this giant horse towering over you is such a strange feeling! Some people have asked me whether the puppeteers were distracting, but to be honest you do forget they are there, seeing the horse and not the people making it come to life. The person at the head can bring you back to the reality of it sometimes, but dressed in stable boy attire he blends in with the horse. A truly moving and upsetting scene was the charge led by Captain Nicholls: the sheer devastation and death which can be portrayed with puppets and some clever movements was shockingly graphic and realistic.

Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Other honorable mentions include Alasdair Craig’s sympathetic Friedrich Muller, Drew Dillon’s goose (N.B. it took me SO long to remember where I knew him from, and it was as Macca from Hollyoaks…I mean Dillon, not the goose!), the backdrop projected on stage which changed with the setting, and the hauntingly beautiful songs by John Tams. I didn’t expect there to be music in the production, but it worked really well and, again, contributed to the amount of tears shed!

If you haven’t done, please go and see this show. Generations alike will be able to relate to it, and it’s amazing that zeitgeist evoked in Michael Morpurgo’s original novel is still as relevant now as back then. An amazing cast, incredible puppetry, and breathtaking/tear inducing music, this production will stay with you long after you leave.

War Horse is booking through to February 2016, and see The National Theatre’s website for tickets and prices. If you’re aged between 16-25, sign up for Entry Pass, and you could get tickets for as little as £15.

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