War Horse

Birmingham Hippodrome


This is one of that rare breed of theatrical productions which can truly be said to be unmissable – spectacular, dramatic, moving and simply brilliant.

The National Theatre has created a landmark production, something which makes us see theatre anew, true theatre magic.

It’s a strenuous work out for the senses, whether it’s a young boy’s love for his horse, the horrors of the war to end all wars - for both sides - or the terror of a tank looming up in the bleak world of the trenches.

On the face of it, it is Michael Morpurgo’s children’s story about World War I told with the help of a puppet of a horse, hardly inspiring . . . until you see the horse. What a puppet from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.

Joey is life size, an articulated hunter needing three puppeteers to operate, two inside and a handler, three puppeteers whose skill in making their charge lifelike means they are hardly noticed after the first few minutes. They become Joey, just as another team of three become the coal black Topthorn, another army horse.



Billy Irving  with the crowd-pleasing goose and Joey. Pictures: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

It is strange to find yourself having emotions about what is essentially a few hinges, canvas and bits of wood – except it took a team around eight months to put together and even standing next to it in the flesh – a privilege afforded to a theatre critic – you would not be surprised to find the puppeteers had to feed it oats.

The puppets are the real stars, including a remarkably nosy and noisy goose, but there is good support from the humans led by Thomas Dennis as Albert Narracott, the boy who trained the young foal who grew into the best horse in Devon, at least in young Albert’s eyes.

And just as Joey grew up, so did Albert, lying about his age to join up and head to France to find and recue his beloved horse, sold to the army by Ted, Albert’ father.

Apparently we took a million horses to France in WWI . . . just 63,000 came back.

Gwilym Lloyd gives us a thoroughly dislikeable Ted with not a single redeeming feature. He is a drunkard, a gambler, a liar who cannot be trusted and has not so much a chip as a whole bagful on his shoulder about his brother Arthur payed by William Ilkley.

Then there is Albert’s mother Rose, played by Jo Castleton, struggling to keep family and farm together with her drunkard husband squandering the mortgage money and making stupid bets tht could see the farm go under.


Ben Ingles  as Lt. Nicholls set to charge on Joey, operated by puppeteers Tom Quinn, Domonic Ramsden and Nicky Cross. 

Arthur’s son Billy,  played by Jasper William Cartwright, is virtually forced into joining up by his father, a lad totally unsuited to the rigours of war, unable to cope with an inevitable end to come.

Joey ends up in the cavalry , in charges across muddy, wire draped no-man’s land into the face of machine guns, enemies fighting wars more than a century apart.

Not that we learned, in my student days I once had a Polish landlord, blind in one eye, with a useless left arm and a limp – injuries suffered a war later in a cavalry charge by Polish lancers against invading German tanks.

Directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris combine with Rae Smith’s setting, Paule Constable’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound to bring at least a feel of war to the stage, blinding flashes, thundering explosions and a stark black and white world.

Joey and Topthorn are captured by the Germans and first employed pulling ambulances and then we feel their pain, step by step, as they are forced to pull heavy guns through Flander’s mud, and then share their exhaustion as horses are worked to death.

On the British side we have Capt Stewart (Simon Victor) and Lt Nicholls, (Ben Ingles) fine cavalry offers leading gallant and futile charges from a long gone age of warfare. We have the raw recruits, farm boys, driven by pride and patriotism to a war they are told will be over by Christmas, as it was to be except it was four Christmases later. They are licked into some sort of shape by old hands like Sgt Thunder, Jason Furnival.

War is a duet of death so we also find Germans, in particular Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, played by Peter Becker, who berates the British cavalrymen he has captured for the suicidal stupidity of charging through wire into machine guns, horrified he has had to shoot 15 badly injured horses tangled in barbed wire.


Peter Becker as Hauptmann Müller, leading Joey and Topthorn.  

When he almost shoots a young French farm girl, Emilie (Joëlle Brabban) the realisation of what war has done to him and what it is doing to others changes him for ever.

There is also a moment when Tommy and Jerry come face to face in a truce to rescue a horse, no prizes for guessing which one, tangled in wire in no man’s land. A coin is tossed to see who keeps the rescued horse, the British win and the horse is returned to British lines and . . . if you have read the book you will know, if not come to the Hippodrome and find out.

The setting is simple, minimalistic, with a doorway for the Narracott farm, and little else but the horror is conveyed in figures appearing through the rear stage gloom, or the terrifying skeletal tank harshly lt amid deafening noise and music from Adrian Sutton.

Hanging from the flies is a stage wide cloud which at time is sky, at times horizon or scenery with charcoal sketches and animations of towns and villages, fields, battlefields, wastelands or horses.

There is one poignant moment when Albert’s soldier mate, Brummie (an how) David  (Toyin Omari-Kinch) is shot dead. The screen fills with growing pools of scarlet blood, the only time we see colour, which slowly evolve into poppies. It is a super backdrop to enhance the play  created by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of 59 Production.

Another feature is the folk songs from folk legend John Tams here sung by Country Durham tditional folk singer Bob Fox which bring a very English and bucolic air to proceedings.

It is based on a children’s book, remember, so the story is simple, but wonderfully told and like R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End, just tells it as it was, to become a moving anti-war play without saying a word. If you want to see the power of theatre and an unforgettable production it is on to 03-11-18.

Roger Clarke


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