Touring – reviewed at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
The touring production of War Horse at the Festival Theatre is involving, emotional, visually spectacular and every bit as good as you have probably heard.
The National Theatre’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book – about Devon farm boy Albert, his horse that is sold into the army in 1914 and his efforts to find it – has played all over the world to great acclaim in the last decade. If you have not yet seen it, that should be put right as soon as possible.
Nick Stafford’s adaptation of what is essentially a children’s book does perhaps try to give a little more weight and resonance than the story can realistically bear. The result is unashamedly sentimental and manipulative and relies more on coincidences and unlikely motivations than would normally be thought advisable. However, none of this matters as the production sweeps the audience along with it in a way that brooks no argument.
Much of the attention over the years has been focused on the depiction of the horses, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick. And rightly so, as their effect is astonishing. It is not that you quite stop noticing their operators, rather that the combination of human and apparent animal has a dexterity and dignity all of its own. Nearly as impressive are the bird puppets, notably a goose with real personality.
The efforts of the human performers should not be overshadowed, however. Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris marshal a huge and talented cast with real skill. The two strands of the story – family tensions and huge, world-shattering conflict – are equally convincing. Thomas Dennis gives Albert a compellingly fresh-faced determination that makes his experiences in the trenches extremely moving.
Jo Castleton, who plays Albert’s mother with stoic humour, and Toyin Omari-Kinch, who is wonderfully expressive as Albert’s army colleague, are among the outstanding performers in a uniformly impressive ensemble.
Despite often appearing on stage for a short time, the various characters have the air of rounded individuals. One of the things that makes the anti-war message of the piece so effective is the way the British, French and German characters are presented as just as brave, just as wise, just as weak and just as stupid as each other.
The horrors of the war are enhanced by Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Paule Constable’s lighting, together with the acting and puppetry, in a way that is suitably visceral and affecting. Anyone who thinks this is some kind of twee animal story should be warned that it is definitely not for very young audiences. There is one moment, when Rae Smith’s outstanding design sees a battlefield dissolve into a Devon Christmas, that is almost unbearably poignant.
This transformation is aided in no small way by the use of music – in this case John Tams’s heartbreaking Devonshire Carol. Adrian Sutton’s score makes clever use of folk forms, and the excellent Bob Fox performs with a steady, timeless grace the songs made for the original production by the peerless Tams. Fox’s Song Man is a narrator figure who – like the songs – is used sparingly, and is all the more effective for it. Only getting one verse of Rolling Home would normally be a cause for great frustration, but here it is integrated into the narrative perfectly.
This combination of different forms is the key to the success of this production. It succeeds unreservedly both as a spectacle, and as the depiction of a truth – that the slaughter of countless numbers should not be a matter of political calculation – that is sadly as relevant today as it ever was.
Anyone who has ever doubted the power of the theatre to transport, to disturb and to entrance should be taken to this forthwith.