Review: War Horse

Playing at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne until February 8
The Lyric Theatre, Sydney from February 15-March 15
The Crown Theatre, Perth from March 24-April 12

There’s certainly one thing audiences will remember above all else from this incredible production – the incredible horse puppets which are simply astounding. But even though the horses are the undisputed stars of the show, the emotional core of this wartime story is still strong and this is an incredibly emotional production that that most people will shed a tear to while viewing.

Based on a beloved children’s book published in 1982 by Michael Morpungo, it was first adapted for the stage in 2007 by Nick Stafford. A film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg followed in 2011, but it seems that it is on the stage where audiences has responded best to this tale of friendship between a young man and his ever-faithful horse Joey.

Set between 1912 and 1918, both before and during World War I, War Horse is the story of British farm boy named Albert (Scott Miller) whose father purchases a young foal on a whim and before long, the horse, who Albert names Joey, becomes the boy’s closest friend. But financial hardship forces Albert’s father to sell Joey to the British army to serve the armed forces in France as the conflict heats up. Distraught at losing his loyal steed and worried Joey might never make it back from the battlefields, Albert enlists himself and is quickly thrust into the conflict zone of France to hopefully one day have a reunion with his beloved thoroughbred.

The technical aspects of War Horse are what really sets it apart and makes it such a spectacular experience. The lighting design is especially brilliant, depicting battle scenes with all of the fire and fury they can depict on stage. One scene involving an advancing tank is particularly impressive in its use of a video screen above the stage which also acts as a signpost of the year and location we are currently in throughout the show. Overall, the stagecraft really does an incredible job of transporting us to another place and time, beautifully depicting wartime England and France.

The first act, with it’s laconic tone and numerous scenes of Albert and Joey bonding, is quite different to the events of the second act, where things get quite intense and some more sensitive audience members might be shaken by some of the more intense scenes of war depicted. The show is not recommend for children under the age of 10 and that is understandable given the amount of gunfire and loud sound effects used to depict the horrors of World War I.

Also helping to transport us back to over 100 years in the past is the beautiful singing of Ben Murray, who also appeared in this production on London’s West End. Murray appears throughout the production to sing a selection of English folk songs from the era, and this works remarkably well in evoking the early 20th-century setting.

The acting is impressive across the board, from Miller as the ever-optimistic Albert, to Colin Connor and Jo Castleton who bring an authenticity to their roles as Albert’s kind-hearted parents. Christoper Naylor also has some fantastic moments as a sympathetic German captain who shows kindness to Joey and Topthorn, another horse employed by the British army. But at the end of the day, this show is not really an actor’s showcase, and the real stars of the show are the remarkable team of puppeteers who bring Joey and the other animals to live on stage, including a scene-stealing goose that is a perennial crowd favourite.

Overall, War Horse tells both an epic story of wartime heroism, but also an intimate one of Albert and Joey’s close bond. The staging is exceptional and the story hits all of the emotional beats you would expect. War Horse will be playing in Melbourne for another three weeks, before moving to Sydney and then Perth, so race along as soon as you can to see War Horse before it gallops away.

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