Saturday, 29 June 2013

'War Horse' at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, Covent Garden

Nothing hammers home just how British I am quite like my pathetic soppiness about animals.  Show me a tiny kitten and I will coo and fuss over it with the ridiculous show of borderline insanity most people reserve for newborn human babies.  Sneak a heart-rending RSCPA advert in between installments of Coronation Street and I will be a helpless, weeping mess by the time the theme tune rolls once more, pledging my annual salary to save a miserable-looking mongrel in a shed.

And this was the real reason that I hadn't, until this week, made it to see War Horse, the theatrical production that everyone else has been raving about since it opened at the National Theatre back in 2007.  I love London's West End as much as the next girl (hell, I've seen Phantom four or five times!), but from a mere scan of its plot I could see that this play was just asking for all kinds of emotional upset-related trouble. Adapted from a Michael Morpurgo novel, War Horse is the story of a boy and his horse (or a horse and his boy depending on whether you're more into animals than people), woven between rural Devon and war-torn France during the First World War.  So we've got animals, death, fear, uncertainty and families torn apart. Dangerous combination.  Even an article in the New Yorker about the show's transfer to Broadway back in 2011 made me blub on the bus.  Of the million horses that the British army took to the war, only 60,000 returned to their stables back home.  Roughly the same number of horses were killed as soldiers during WWI.  But the horses never agreed to make this ultimate sacrifice for their country.  Yep, War Horse was going to leave me in bits.  It would be crazy for me to go.

But then these lovely people offered me a pair of tickets to go and see the play, and not one to look a gift-(war)-horse in the mouth, I packed some tissues, gathered up official theatre pal, the Accidental Ally, and bravely headed to the New London Theatre.
As the Ally and I took our really excellent seats front and centre, we looked down on the kind of blank stage set which heralds either a painful minimalist am-dram production of Macbeth or the advent of something truly magical.  Fortunately for us, War Horse employs some of the cleverest production and stage-setting I have seen in London in the past few years, so we were not left cringing and wondering why half the cast appeared to be ignoring one particular actor who was blatantly still within plain sight. The plain black stage has a wide, papery-looking banner stretched across the theatre above it, upon which a series of sketches are projected; simple, yet staggeringly effective at transferring the action of the play from season to season, and even across the Channel, from southern England to northern France. 

Similarly effective, yet far more complex, were the mechanical puppets used to play the role of the equine leads.  Operated by three puppeteers each foal or full-sized horse could thus breathe, twitch its ears, trot, gallop and shy in a most realistic manner.  And the longer you watched the easier it was to see past the puppeteers and believe you're watching a real horse up there on the stage.  Never, however, has the sight of three people backing slowly away from a fallen pile of fabric and mechanical workings been so symbolically heart-breaking.  

So yes, I cried. But, glancing around the theatre (packed on a Thursday evening - not bad for a play which has been running for well over five years) I felt consoled by the fact I was not the only one shedding a tear over the noble Joey, the feuding, farming Narracot family and the brutality of trench warfare and cavalry charges.  We may have all been weeping, but the buzz as everyone pushed off home after the play had come to a triumphant end told a more uplifting story.  Emotionally-charged but a deeply impressive feat of staging and story-telling, War Horse even managed to silence the two rows of children on a school-trip who had been fidgetting, chattering and attempting a limp Mexican wave until Act 1 began and they fell completely silent for the next three hours.

Often after a play has run for several years, sitting in the audience you can feel a slight weariness, a feeling that everyone and everything on stage has gone through the same motions many thousands of times before.  War Horse however holds its energy, telling its story as if this were still its opening week.  And that is probably why the crowds keep coming.  Long may they continue to do so.

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  1. I am glad that you had such a lovely time. I am always looking for some new shows, thanks for the advice!

    1. Highly recommended, Muriel. Might be a good one for the whole family too!


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