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War Horse at the New London Theatre - Review

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by Sebastian Rydberg (subscribe)
Heavily caffeinated Viking.
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War Horse - puppetry come to life
War Horse – the title evokes images of majestic battle scenes and the glory of war. With only three years to go until the 100th anniversary marking the end of the Great War, it is fitting that this tale is a centrepiece of West End theatre. But while the story is set during one of the grimmest periods in modern history, War Horse is remarkably endearing and heart-warming. Albert's naïve pursuit of his beloved Joey never feels strained, and it is his unquestionable love for the half dray-horse that keeps us believing in the story.

Albert & Joey
Albert & Joey
Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Author Michael Morpurgo's tale begins at the brink of war. Albert Narracott (Sion Young) – a spirited 16-year old – lives with his parents on their failing farm. In an act of recklessness, Albert's alcoholic, but well meaning, father, Ted (Jamie Kenna), buys a foal simply to spite his successful brother. After the initial hubbub Albert and Joey's bond grows in spite of every ploy that would tear them apart. Against all odds, the little foal grows up to impress everyone that meets him. Just when it could not get any better, Ted sells Joey off to an officer in need of a wartime steed.

The story is punctuated by a resonant chorus, led by a main singer clutching a great tome – seemingly to remind us that the story is, in fact, also an award-winning novel. The music tends to get under your skin and that, together with the period costumes and vernacular, sends you off to a bygone age.

puppet horse
Joey in full gallop
Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Now the horses: the novelty of these elaborately designed puppets never wears off. This is truly puppetry come alive. They whinny, gallop, and huff in despair. Everything down to their twitching ears are moveable. Their execution plays upon the very magic of theatrical ingenuity. The horses are so obviously manipulated by up to three puppeteers, but their seamless control becomes an integral part of the horses' personas.

I found the underlying meaning behind the story, that of friendship and the bonds between humans and animals, took on a greater meaning once the Germans entered the story. Following an initially menacing introduction, the Germans are portrayed just as rash, hard-working or downright scared as the English are. The heroes in the story may wear different flags on their uniforms, but their humility and respect for human life transcends allegiances. Friedrich Müller (Jack Sandle) is indeed one of the more memorable characters, as a morally conflicted officer facing the dilemma deserting of the army.

albert joey war horse
Albert & Joey
Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Critique aside, this is one of the more memorable West End experiences to be had in London today. Both young and old will find the play engaging. Anyone will gaze with childlike wonder at the incredibly lifelike puppets. Adults will recognise clever lines and references to a very complicated period in this condensed history. A younger audience will no doubt laugh at the off-kilter, but child-friendly, dialogue.

If you want to experience another tribute to the warhorses of World War I – head over to Hyde Park's Brooke Gate. Here you will find a somewhat forlorn, but proud, memorial that has been erected to all the animals that served and fell during wartime.

hyde park animals war
Animals in War Memorial
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*Sebastian Rydberg was invited as a guest
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Why? Unforgettable theatre
Phone: 020 7452 3000
Where: New London Theatre
Cost: £12 day seats available
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