“War Horse” introduces us to Joey, who develops an unbreakable bond with his owner Albert as he grows from a leggy foal into a spirited and lovable riding horse. Joey is then sold to the Cavalry by Albert’s greedy father, who can only see the financial gains and is unable to see the heartbreak he has caused. Albert has little joy in his life and struggles to contend with his father’s gambling and alcoholism which constantly jeopardises the family farm, and despite not being old enough to enlist for the war Albert embarks on a treacherous mission to track down Joey and bring him home – because they were meant to have each other forever.
I am an avid horse lover, and lucky enough to know one of the original film Joeys, who lives in Mursley, Buckinghamshire. Friends of mine from The Devil’s Horsemen were involved in the making of the film, so it has always held my interest. I was curious as to how these magnificent beasts could be realistically replicated on stage, and whether the show could live up to its momentous reputation.
The puppets were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before – if anything it feels a bit crude to describe them as puppets, given how far removed they are from the days of Sooty and Sweep! I was amazed by how lifelike Joey and the other horses were, and yet there was also a completely acceptable element of abstract within their appearance and mannerisms. I was truly stunned by the ease with which the horses were ridden and how they manoeuvred the stage, and for the most part I completely forgot about the puppeteers who were often in plain sight.
My favourite thing about the horses were their ears.. I was transported back to summer afternoons riding my little mare, and watching her ears twitch as they caught sounds carried by the breeze. Some of the noises made by the puppeteers were absolutely spot on too, particularly the “huffing” of Joey and Topthorn.
My least favourite bits, by contrast, were some of the “screechy” noises made by the puppeteers – I felt they were a little overdone and took away from how realistic the puppets were (another moment like this was when Joey gripped Topthorn by the neck to pull him up – a little too “cartoony” for my tastes.
I’ve got to be honest, it was a harrowing watch, and at times I felt quite overwhelmed by the performance. It dug down into the hidden truths of the war, and the cruelty shown to both humans and animals as lives became increasingly expendable behind the trenches. The grey horses pulling the cart in the second half made me particularly sad! Buzz word – traumatic!
“War Horse” is such a unique show that has nuzzled its way into hearts the world over. It is an international phenomenon with no sign of slowing down or being superseded any time soon. It may not be for everyone (I’d certainly say an interest in horses, farming or the war would increase the likelihood of enjoyment) but you’d need a heart of stone to not invest even a little bit of yourself in the plight of Albert and his magnificent best friend. An unrivalled art piece that I hope continues to draw large audiences for years to come.