This is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of watching the National Theatre’s production of WarHorse – and it has lost none of its charm and emotional heft.
This time around I was accompanied by my 13-year-old son. And as any doting parent will tell you – watching those close to you fall under the spell of live performance is as good as watching the thing itself.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford, WarHorse celebrates 22 years since its debut on the stage of the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre.
It’s a simple story with heavyweight themes – loss of innocence, the value of friendship and the devastating effects of war. We follow Devon farm boy Albert as his friendship grows with Joey, from foal to fully grown horse. At the outbreak of The Great War the pair are torn apart when Albert’s father sells Joey to the British Cavalry.
Against the backdrop of horror of trench warfare, Albert embarks on an odyssey to search against all hope for his equine friend.
But it’s the way that this tale is realised on stage through the innovative use of puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company that truly set the production apart in a way that has yet to be equalled. In the hands of the expert puppet masters – a simple articulated steel frame inexplicably and unquestioningly becomes a living breathing foal, all gangly legs, flicking ears and a curiosity about the world around him.
And as his friendship grows and the years pass, narrated by the wonderfully evocative folk music of Ben Murray, we see Joey grow before our eyes into an imposing stallion.
It’s a tribute to the accomplished storytelling, the nuanced acting by Scott Miller as Albert and the uncanny puppetry work by Handspring Puppet Company that can make a cynical curmudgeon like me care about what happens to the two pals – as they struggle against forces greater than themselves.
Wonderful backdrops, incredible visual direction and immersive sound design – there’s a reason that some productions stand the test of time.
It’s a stunning piece of work and encapsulates everything that live theatre, at its best, can achieve – a truly visceral shared emotional experience.
In a moment of honesty, I told my boy that I may have shed one or two manly tears in the dark of the theatre – ‘so did I’ he admitted.
If you get the chance, clear your diary and seek it out.
WarHorse runs at Oxford’s New Theatre until Saturday 7 September.