As the house lights dim there is a palpable sense of excitement in the huge Brighton Centre auditorium as the, much anticipated, National Theatre production of War Horse opens – a full two years after tickets first went on sale. With such a huge build up, there may have been fears that the show might not be able to deliver- but this superb production far exceeds all expectations.
From the moment that the foal Joey, skillfully operated by Joëlle Brabban, Kiran Landa and Elizabeth Stretton, starts to find his feet, the total silence from the capacity crowd really emphasises not only how captivating the play proves to be but also the beautiful craftsmanship that has gone into the construction of the puppet.
The true-to-life movement of the infant horse is only surpassed when, in a blaze of glory, the adult Joey appears. With such a huge puppet, with fully joined limbs, the definition in the movement is quite simply incredible. The 12 puppeteers who work, in rotation, the adult puppets of both Joey and his eventual stable-mate Topthorn are brilliantly skillful, and it is that group who make the two horses the real stars of the show.
The story begins in Devon, before the start of the Great War, and features the Narracott family. Albert (Thomas Dennis) is the teenage son of Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) and Rose (Jo Castleton). Ted squanders the mortgage money on buying Joey, just to prevent his brother, Arthur (William Ilkley) and his son Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) from taking ownership.
All too soon the country is at war and the men of the town sign up to go and fight. Ted, seeing a chance to make some money to fund his drinking, sells Joey to become an army horse. The sound, lighting and video projection teams come together fantastically well at this point to take us on the boat trip to France and then, with skillful imagery, to convey the full horror of the war.
Refreshingly, this is not a simple tale of the brave “Tommy” and the wicked “Hun”. German Officer Friedrich Muller (Peter Becker) begins to see that war is futile and, with the death toll increasing with every new bomb blast, he gambles with his future and decides to help a young French girl, Emilie (Joëlle Brabban), and her mother, to escape after their farmhouse is bombed and razed to the ground.
Although we have witnessed many dramatic and emotional scenes throughout the play, as we head towards the end of the piece, and all the strands of storyline come together, the emotional intensity is increased further for the final twenty minutes. After the drama has reached it’s conclusion, the amazingly talented cast take their bows and soak up the appreciation from an audience who have taken to their feet.
As the applause finally dies down, I hear the lady behind me say “As long as I live I will never forget this show”, a sentiment echoed by many who have witnessed this truly incredible production.
***** Five Stars