Originally published on London Box Office
I’ve always thought that the New London theatre was a strange venue. Obviously built much later than some of its older, more classically designed counterparts, it reminds me of the National Theatre in its concrete 1960s structure and its complicated interior design.
I always feel a bit like a mouse in some kind of scientific maze designed to measure how intelligent the subject is when I’m in these buildings, they are not logical in the slightest. But interior design aside, in its relatively brief history this theatre has played host to one of the longest running musicals the West End has ever seen – with a show like Cats under its belt, this is a theatre to be taken seriously. Now it seems that the theatre has found another (hopefully) longstanding production – War Horse is now in its 6th year and with a recent cast change it is still filling the theatre on a cold Monday night, which says more to me than I could ever put down in words.
Set before and throughout the First World War, War Horse (based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name) tells the story of Joey, a captured foal brought to Devon for auction and bought in a drunken bet when Ted Narracott (Matthew Flynn) is determined to outbid his equally stubborn brother Arthur (Simon Wolfe). It is left to son Albert (Jack Loxton) to train Joey up from foal to stallion and prove his worth in the village before the First World War whisks both off on different journeys to the front lines in France. Both boy and horse are forced to come to terms with being separated and thrown into the whirlwind of chaos and confusion that the war brings up.
The first thing I noticed when taking my seat was the set, or lack of it. The theatre stage is set up in a very similar way to the National – with a black backdrop and no clear boundaries to mark the stage from the wings from the audience, it adds to the immersive experience of the whole play. Right from the start I felt drawn into the show and throughout the whole thing I was sat on the edge of my seat in half wonderment that I was feeling the same fears and emotions as a puppet horse. The strip of ribbon across the set that moves the story forward with well-crafted hand drawings is a really clever piece of set design – it grounds the story by highlighting the rural backgrounds from which the characters were plucked out of to be dropped in the unjust cruelty of the war. The music was also a great choice; it has Celtic & folk undertones that also highlight the rural backdrop for the story. Only Remembered is re-used at different points in the play to subtly remind the audience of how real this story would have been for so many people 100 years ago.
Now I could write a whole review just about Joey and the puppeteers whom operate him, but suffice to say that these are people have an incredible knowledge of their craft. After a matter of minutes you almost forget that they are there and are drawn into watching the horse as an individual – frankly I can’t think of any higher praise for the actors’ capabilities here. What I did notice by being so close to the action was the way in which each puppeteer is not simply moving the relevant parts of the horse; all 3 are completely in tune with the horse’s emotions, so much so that you can see them acting these out through facial expressions and their own body movements. I also had no idea that each one contributed to the overall sounds of the horse – it’s not simply one person making the relevant sounds for Joey but a culmination of all 3 that gives Joey his realistic nature and personality. The final thing that really struck me about Joey was his eyes. Now I know that they themselves didn’t move or (obviously) exhibit emotion and maybe it was simply a culmination of the realistic way he moved, but throughout the show I saw a greater range and depth of emotion in those eyes than I often see in many an actor.
I’ve said quite a lot about Joey the horse (who deserves nothing but praise and more) but that shouldn’t take away from the other puppets’ performances. Topthorn is equally as realistic as Joey and yet displays a clearly distinctive personality; much more aggressive and headstrong, you get the sense that initially there will be a clash for dominance between the 2 characters who eventually cement their friendship when they are put through the extreme pressures of the war. Indeed some of the scenes between these two are the most emotional in the play. The goose (Elan James) is incredibly effective as the comedic relief in this play and I think deserves some kind of West End award for Best Comedy Performance – it punctuates the more serious scenes with just the right amount of innocent lightness.
Of course the actors themselves (not the ones playing the animals) deserve praise; in this case it is not a bad thing to be overshadowed by animal acting! Albert (Loxton) is key to the story and the relationship he quickly fosters with Joey is real, emotional and at times heart-breaking. I think that Loxton deserves extra praise here; I imagine that it must have been harder as an actor to react off the actions of a puppet, but if that were the case he hid it well. The fact that the audience were crying, laughing and feeling everything that this relationship had to offer (and it had plenty throughout the production) shows how professional Loxton truly is.
I could go on about this play all day – I haven’t even scratched the surface of the notes that I made whilst watching this show. But I wouldn’t want to give away anything of the magic of this story, it really is a masterclass in how to connect with the audience. The fact that the cast are made up of puppets only makes this production all the more extraordinary.