Why War Horse has been such a galloping success

PUBLISHED: 16:03 19 October 2017 | UPDATED: 17:56 19 October 2017

War Horse. (Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

War Horse. (Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)


Whatever I say here about War Horse, having had the great privilege of seeing it at the Hippodrome on its opening night in Bristol last night, could never do justice to what has become the biggest galloping success story in the history of National Theatre.

The War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/MoegenburgThe War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The record-breaking show about a horse’s experiences in wartime, based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, opened at the National Theatre in London on October 17 2007, meaning the experience of seeing the enthralling performance was only topped by the pride of finding out I was at the actual tenth anniversary (bar a day!) of it being seen by enraptured audiences all around the world.

Since its record-breaking run in the West End, War Horse has been seen in 97 cities in 10 countries, and is back on tour to coincide with the centenary of the end of World War One.

The book, which was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film by Steven Spielberg, tells the heart-warming story of Devonshire farm boy Albert and his great and enduring love for a horse called Joey.

The show features ground-breaking puppetry work by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which brings breathing, galloping horses to the stage.

The War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/MoegenburgThe War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

As the play’s director Tom Morris told the Bristol audience at the end of the performance last night, the puppets themselves are just sticks of wood with canvas stuck on, but due to the skilled, and what must be back-breaking, work of the people in and outside the creations, the horses, birds and a very nosey but cute goose come alive for audiences who want to imagine they are the real thing on stage.

Creating life-like animals on stage aside, the other major hurdle for bringing Morpurgo’s tale to theatre audiences is to transport people to various stages, countries and scenes of World War One and its bloody battles, without it becoming a cacophony of confusion.

This was achieved simply but to great effect by having a projection screen in the shape of a scrap of paper running across the top of the stage backdrop. This also cleverly represents the scrap of paper torn from a sketchpad on which an army major had drawn Joey, which Albert rips out to keep as a memento when he goes to war in search of his beloved pet. The screen was then used to show sketches, continually moving, of the Devon village where Albert and his family live, army trenches, the Western Front, boats sailing to Calais, and the Battle of the Somme, among many others.

In fact the war scenes, as shocking as they were, provided possibly the best, and certainly the most dramatic, piece of theatre I have ever seen. The dazzlingly bright flashes of light, tension-building music and tremendously loud bangs, which caused the lady sitting next to me to shower herself with her glass of red wine not only once but two or three times, continued to make the audience jump, recoil in horror, gasp and sit open-mouthed in unison throughout the two hours and 25 minutes.

The War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/MoegenburgThe War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The cast were all superb and played their parts with the utmost professionalism and it certainly could not have been easy to act out such heart-wrenching scenes as you would expect to see in battle.

In fact I could not even pick out stand-out performances as to do so would be grossly unfair to the rest of the huge ensemble who were all marvellous in equal measure.

I will say though that the show would not have been so emotionally draining and thought-provoking without the haunting accordion-playing and folk singing of Bob Fox throughout the performance, which was the glue which held all the scenes together.

I was dubious about taking my nine-year-old son with me to see it, knowing it would be such a late night for him on a school night, but I am so glad I did. He thoroughly enjoyed it as much as me and I know he left understanding a lot more about how horrific it must have been to live through and serve during wartime. So at least I can feel justified in adding to his education even if he has been falling asleep in lessons today!

The War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/MoegenburgThe War Horse UK tour. Picture: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The show is an absolute must-see, even if you never see another play in your life. It is an extremely powerful, emotive and totally immersive piece of theatre and richly deserves all the accolades bestowed upon it.

War Horse will be at the Bristol Hippodrome until November 11 at 7.30pm, Monday- Saturday.

There will be 2.30pm matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Tickets, priced £22.40-65.40, are available from www.atgtickets.com/venues/bristol-hippodrome or 08448 713012.

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