Review: WAR HORSE, The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

By: Jan. 10, 2019
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One of the most instantly noticeable things about War Horse is the diversity of its audience's ages: a children's book - if enjoyed by many a parent or independent adult - turned into a play and attended by schoolchildren, twentysomethings and those, like Michael Morpurgo himself, who spent childhoods playing in the bomb sites created by the Second World War.

War Horse begins immediately before the Great War and tells the story of a foal, Joey, who grows up in Devon before departing England for mainland Europe in 1914. In his own words, Michael Morpurgo sought to show the "universal suffering of that dreadful war in which ten million people died, and unknown millions of horses" - without picking sides. A bold choice for a children's story, but one which has proved immensely popular, even with those who might be considered too young for such challenging concepts.

The result has been dubbed an "anthem for peace" and, while there is never a bad time for such an anthem, in the light of ever more media depicting the plights of young people along with adults, the story seems particularly poignant now.

Even as it inspires love for one's homeland (and its animals), the play succinctly demonstrates how little really separates the Allies' and Central Powers' troops from one another. Both sides demonstrate the same hilarious and pointless behaviours when trying to speak to each other; both sides connect to their own humanity through care for animals and play with children.

Nick Stafford's adaptation is justly known for its puppets. Handspring Puppet Company's superb designs, with movement direction and choreography by Toby Sedgwick, are awe-inspiring, powerful and endearing in equal measure.

In the same way that War Horse shows how our interactions with animals, with children and with each other can enable us to reconnect with our humanity in the very worst of times, the puppetry and songs have the power to transcend more naturalistic stagecraft and to speak meaningfully of the unspeakable.

Adrian Sutton's folk-inspired score is performed beautifully by Rob Fox. Special mentions are also deserved for Peter Becker, who plays Friedrich Müller; Thomas Dennis, who plays Albert Narracott; and the host of puppeteers and actors who operate the horses.

Rae Smith's design is thoughtful and immensely expressive. It is hard to find fault save with the inconsistency of some accents; directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have done an impressive job.

Though tastefully portrayed, some scenes will be too distressing for very young audience members. However, all in all, this is outstanding theatre - for young people, and just for people.

War Horse at The Marlowe Theatre until 14 October, then continuing on tour

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg