Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
The audience gasps with shock mid-way through the second act of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s latest tour of their epic staging of Michael Morpurgo’s World War One-set novel. When they do, that’s when you know the power of Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris’ puppet-led spectacular is still intact. A decade after it was created, any dead horses involved categorically aren’t being flogged.
The opening and closing of Nick Stafford’s adaptation, overseen in this revival by Katie Henry, features a show of collective strength led by Bob Fox’s hearty renditions of John Tams’ Norfolk-inflected songs. This looks drawn from the NT’s 1980s template of folksy radicalism. Once foal Joey is brought to staggering life by a dozen puppeteers in constructions designed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of South Africa’s phenomenal Handspring Puppet Company, it becomes an even more impressive spectacle.
As Joey is sold to the army, only to be followed by Albert, the boy who trained and loved him, the horse becomes a symbol of how war can break and brutalise. Accompanied by Adrian Sutton’s sweeping score, at times things take a balletic turn, as they do with Joey’s fleeting pas de deux with a tank. An increasingly grey split-open sky ebbs and flows with designer Rae Smith’s explosive sketches, animated and projected by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of Edinburgh International Festival favourites, 59 Productions.
The horses may be the stars here, but a cast of twenty-two led by Thomas Dennis as Albert deliver something equally heroic. Forget Spielberg’s film version. There is more flesh, blood, muscle and guts on show here than any wide-screen rendition can muster. All of which suggests that War Horse is unlikely to be put out to grass for some time yet.
The Herald, April 20th 2018