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War Horse

Photo by Simon Annand
Report by Peter Charlton

There could hardly be a better Saturday than watching ‘War Horse’ at the National Theatre and then going home to see England beat France in the Rugby World Cup. I can’t offer you the latter but you may be able to see ‘War Horse’ as it will remain in the National’s repertoire until January (and, I suspect, back next year at the same time).
Michael Morpurgo’s classic children’s book about the life of Joey the horse, from foal to almost death in WW1 does not seem to be ideal for stage adaptation but the combined talents of Tom Morris, Marianne Elliott (directors), Nick Stafford (adaptor) and Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company (puppet designers & makers) plus the superb design & drawings of Rae Smith, John Tams’ songs, Adrian Sutton’s music, Paule Constable’s lighting and a brilliant bunch of actors, singers and puppeteers not only bring it off but make it one of the most exhilarating evenings I’ve spent in a theatre for a long time – and I spend a lot of nights in theatres.
It is very much an ensemble production with many playing more than one part. The puppets are the stars, horses, birds, people; Finn Caldwell, of Blind Summit, is inside or behind several of them, including a goose which gets most of the laughs in the show. Mind you, there aren’t many of those – my wife spent most of the time with tears streaming down her face. This is so much an ensemble production that it would be invidious to single out performers but it was good to see puppeteers I’ve known for some years shining on the huge Olivier stage. Both Mervyn Miller and Rachel Leonard have a hand in operating the little French girl, Emilie and produce some magical moments. ‘Must See’ productions are rare but this is one. Book now and I promise you, you’ll want to see it at least twice – but be quick, I’m told it’s selling very fast. I’ve already booked for my next visit.

Post Script (Peter Charlton)
Not only was ‘War Horse’ superb, so was the platform talk given by Handspring on 26 October at the Olivier. Ably chaired by Penny Francis, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones told us about their beginnings, methods and philosophies and then with three of the puppeteers, demonstrated how Joey the Horse operated. It was excellent, especially for puppeteers. I wonder how many there were in the theatre? John Field, Ken Haines and Rachel Riggs I know were there and were enthralled. Those who werent missed a great treat. As one who hates seeing dead puppets being walked around at times, I was particularly impressed that the puppeteers kept the horse breathing all the time they were with it, even when waiting to hear what the next question might be. Had they not had to go and prepare for the 7.30 pm show, I suspect we would have been there for hours afterwards.

Comment by John Field
I saw it last week and also went to the ‘Platform’ – chaired by Penny Francis. Both show and Platform were excellent. I was sorry to see only a handful of puppeteers at the Platform because it was so enlightening and entertaining. As for the show, it is stunning puppetry and also wonderful theatre – far better than the book and much less sentimental, with some very fine performances from both the actors and the puppeteers. The script is the weakest point but it doesnt affect the show unduly. Any puppeteer worth their salt should go and see War Horse which, if the world is fair, will garner a stack of awards next year.
Great Theatre, Great Puppetry and a Great Night Out. It is wonderful to see puppetry centre-stage of the National once more. I rarely give raves as many puppeteers know - but dont miss this - itll make you cry and cheer!

Photo by Simon Annand

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