The timely return of War Horse to the National Theatre to mark the centenary of Armistice Day is a reminder of its brilliance as a theatrical event.
Over the 11 years since the stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book premiered at the National before galloping into the West End and over to Broadway some critics have praised its stage-craft but noted that the spectacle sometimes overshadows the actors. Correct.
They’ve also wondered if Morpurgo’s slight story, written for children, is robust enough to stand its elevation to a weighty war-is-hell drama geared as much towards parents as youngsters. Again, they have a point.
But as a piece of theatre War Horse (which is at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre before heading back out on a national tour in January) is jaw-droppingly realised, with puppetry that brings the tale of Joey - the equine hero ripped from his Devon home and loving teenage trainer Albert and plunged into the horrifying action of World War I in France - to vivid life.
As in The Lion King, it’s breathtaking seeing Joey and other horses and animals animated through life-size puppets operated by handlers who also supply the snorts and whinnies.
The connection between man and beast is thus beautifully conveyed and the animals themselves seem thrillingly real.
Yes, you come away remembering the majestic Joey and the dazzling visuals more than the sometimes one-dimensional humans he comes into contact with. But there’s not a dry eye in the house by the end and the astonishing imagery will stay with your forever.
War Horse is at the National Theatre until January 5th. For great deals on tickets and shows click here
Words by Simon Button