11 February 2019

War Horse - Sunderland Empire

As an animal-loving, hyper sensitive pacifist, I questioned whether I should go and see War Horse. I purposefully haven't seen the film because I knew I would get too upset (the same goes for Dunkirk. God, I couldn't even get through Birdbox). I can't handle seeing animals struggle or be in pain, but at the same time I want to see every theatre production I can so I steeled myself to sit through almost three hours of the horrors of war with added animal struggle. (I'm close to tears as I'm reading writer Michael Morpurgo's piece on writing War Horse in the programme, he talked to an an old man whose beloved war horse was sold to French butchers for meat). 

War Horse


I was immediately struck by the size of the cast (over forty) and the amazing staging. Set designer Rae Smith hit on the idea of converting a page ripped from Captain Nicholas sketchbook into a 25-metre wide screen above the stage, where powerful sketches are used to accentuate the story. (The Captain's 1914 painting of a horse named Joey inspired Morpurgo to write the novel). Nicholl's appears at the beginning of the play, sketching our protagonist Albert Narracott (the excellent Scott Miller) galloping on his beloved horse Joey, after his belligerent and greedy father Ted Narracott (Colin Connor) spends a fortune buying Joey at auction. You find yourself immediately invested in the connection between boy and horse, and even though the talented trio operating Joey are clearly visible on stage, your head and heart are only seeing a beautiful horse (I had to keep telling myself that it was only a puppet, that's how real it felt due to the fantastic work by the Handspring Puppet Company).

War Horse
Albert and Joey share the most amazing bond 
If you're new to the story (and haven't already seen the Spielberg film) you quickly realise that his horse is on some kind of hero's journey as both he and Albert face countless obstacles. Narracott Senior's greed sees him making a stupid bet with a local rival  which risks losing Joey and has no regard to his wellbeing or his son's feelings, but ultimately ends up saving his life on the battlefield of World War I. Albert has a week to turn Joey into a plough horse (to me a metaphor for strength). or else his cousin Ned gets the horse. Thankfully Albert wins the bet, but their biggest challenge occurs when again Mr Narracott acts does something unforgivable - sells Joey to the war effort. I felt sick to my stomach, even though I knew that millions of horses were killed in WWI by machine guns, poison gas, horrendous conditions and bombs. Luckily, light relief and laughs come courtesy of an unruly goose and the banter between soldiers. Albert is crushed, however Captain Nicholls promises that he will look after the horse who is shipped to France along with Topthorn, a black stallion.

Sunderland Empire
Joey and the comedy goose
In a moving scene before the end of the first act, Captain Nicholls is involved in a cavalry charge which shows the might of the German machine gun fire. He is shot and killed, his body blown back from his steed and lifted into the air. Joey is captured by German troops. At this point, I was thinking that if I didn't have to review it, I might have left because it was so hard for me to watch. The production is far too good to chicken out at the half way point though.

Act Two sees Albert lie about his age and join up for the war effort, determined to find his beloved Joey. Albert's cousin Ned (who also signed up) is in a makeshift hospital on a French farm but is killed in an altercation after he fails to drop his knife. We meet German officer Freidrich Muller (Christoper Naylor), and a French girl Emilie (Natalie Kimmerling) who share a love for horses, and play a large part in Joey's story. Joey and Topthorn (who were once enemies) are being used to pull ambulances carrying wounded soldiers (thank God that Joey learned to plough back in Devon). The second half accurately and horrifyingly depicts the horrors of war, with gunfire, loud bangs and explosions making me and lots of the audience around me jump out of our seats.  Bloodshed is depicted in the screen above, morphing into poppies. Friedrich makes a risky decision in an attempt to survive the war and help Emilie and her mother, but can he carry on protecting the horses?

War Horse on tour
Joey faces the horrors of war
I won't divulge the ending in case you haven't seen the film or read the book, all I'll say is that's when the tears really started to flow. I can't praise the production enough - excellent cast, amazing staging, choreography and direction, the talent of the puppeteers and I loved the musical interludes by Ben Murray which set the tone for the action to come or what had gone on before. And that screen above the stage projecting the beautiful line drawings of Rae Smith is inspired (not forgetting the comedy goose). 

War Horse is at Sunderland Empire until February 23rd. Buy tickets here

Please support the Brooke Horse and Donkey charity who are collecting at each performance.

(I received two tickets in exchange for a review).




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