Reviewed by Katy Hart
Last evening, I had the absolute pleasure of being at the opening night of War Horse at the New Theatre Oxford. It is possibly the most beautiful and emotive theatre production I have ever seen about a story of the truest of friendships surviving in the most terrible of times.
The production is based on the 1982 novel by author, Michael Morpurgo. The programme notes tell the beautiful story of how he came to write the novel – I took the time to read these notes quietly whilst sat in the piano bar enjoying a pre-show drink. Morpurgo grew up with the damage of war all around him and because of this has an incredible empathy towards the subject of war. His inspiration for War Horse was a painting of a cavalry charge in the First World War, and a conversation with an old man in a pub, who with tears in his eyes talked for hours about the horse he’d loved and left behind at the end of the war. Morpugo wanted to portray the universal suffering of the Great War in which ten million people died and unknown millions of horses, and he does this exquisitely through the eyes and words of a horse, Joey, and the incredible connection Joey has with his owner, a young farm boy, Albert.
As the curtain lifted the atmosphere in the theatre immediately became emotionally charged as the Songperson (Ben Murray) set the scene with the evocative and stirring musical score. He weaves seamlessly in and out of the storyline bringing sensitivity and emotion to the scenes.
The initial scenes show the difficulties and hardships in rural Devon in the early 1900’s. Joey is sold at market to the highest bidder of two spurring brothers bidding against each other, and is trained by Albert, a young farm boy, the son of the winning brother. Joey and Albert form the most beautiful connection with each other. It is a mutual trust and friendship that stirs the hearts of all watching.
As World War One breaks out not only are young men being enlisted, but the Cavalry are purchasing horses to take out to the front line to assist. Albert’s beloved Joey is sold and shipped to France where he very soon becomes caught up in enemy fire and the officer who had purchased him and promised to look after him is killed. Joey ends up being captured by German troops and is used as a workhorse to transport the injured on a makeshift ambulance.
When Albert discovers that the British Officer who promised to look after Joey has been killed, he enlists despite not being of age, and the story follows the treacherous mission he embarks upon as he makes his way across the Somme in France to find his beloved horse.
I had heard that the puppetry in the play was remarkable, however I wasn’t prepared for quite how magnificent the puppets really are. The storytelling through the art of puppetry is so skilfully and sensitively told that you lose yourself in what is happening and you can completely believe they are real horses on the stage. They may just be wooden sticks with fabric draped over them, however on stage they are so much more than this and they capture perfectly the essence of these beautiful animals and bring them to life in the most wonderful and immersive way.
This is so much more than a puppet show, based on a children’s novel. It will totally capture you and move you to your very core, whatever age you are. It is difficult to write and give justice to such a deeply touching and powerful production.
There were also especially moving performances last evening from Scott Miller as the young Albert, and Christopher Naylor as the German officer who took care of Joey.
A production like this does not just happen, it is the result of incredible talent and a lot of hard work, much of which is behind the scenes. From the staging, to lighting, to the beautiful scoring and delivery of the music, and so much more. It is a team effort and last evenings performance was a credit to the team.
War Horse will be in Oxford on its UK and International tour until Saturday 7 September and I would thoroughly recommend going to see it. Take your tissues, sit back, and be prepared to be mesmerised by some of the most beautiful storytelling I’ve had the privilege to experience.
Tickets cost from £13 (plus £3.65 transaction fee).
New Theatre Oxford, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2AG | 0844 871 3020