Although The New Theatre has welcomed back the award-winning drama War Horse, having sold out last time around, expectations for the internationally acclaimed production, beloved by so many, were still high.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the story of young Albert and his foal Joey maturing from the Devonshire countryside through to France, during the horrors of The First World War, is everything you could hope for in a play. It’s uplifting, bittersweet and deeply sad all at once, as we see this frightening new world emerge through the eyes of the horse.
The puppetry is orchestrated with such mastery you truly feel as though you are watching sentient beings – the horses’ ears twitching nervously back and forth, tails swishing.
This makes the battle scenes increasingly harrowing as Joey is sold to the British Cavalry by Albert’s father and sent to the front.
Albert risks his life in a touching quest to be reunited with his beloved Joey – this deep connection between man and beast made clear, as wartime friendships are made and lost along the way.
Joey’s transformation from foal to fully grown horse is nothing short of breathtaking, earning gasps from the audience.
If you are of a nervous disposition you might want to brace yourself. The ring of gunshots made the audience as a whole jump, despite knowing what was coming; the striking visuals of the machine guns and tanks demonstrating the vulnerability of the human and equine flesh standing in their way.
The brutal battles scenes conveyed the sense of dismay and at times hopelessness of this war. The sweet natures of Albert and Joey clash with this harshness – Lieutenants screaming out hopeless orders as soldiers charge to their deaths.
This portrayal of dismembered and decaying bodies, human and horse alike where ten million people died and vast unknown numbers of horses is an impressive feat given the limitations of the stage. The play sombrely honours all those lives lost without romanticising war.
But there are moments of lightness: During the Devonshire village scenes, the cast’s powerful voices sing a rousing chorus. As for the Goose, it stole my heart.
The cast and crew cannot be applauded enough for their craftmanship. On until September 7, it’s clear why War Horse sold out last time around.
You’d be unwise to miss this alchemy.