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Galloping into my heart: War Horse at the New London Theatre (****)

Critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, the monumental success of the National Theatre’s production of War Horse can hardly be doubted. Now running at the New London Theatre.

To describe War Horse as “popular” would be a little bit of an understatement – the show has won some of the most prestigious theatre awards available, has been gifted with a wide range of exceptional reviews, and has been a humongous success with audiences from London through to America, Canada and Australia. It is, arguably, the theatre hit of this generation – popular enough to attract audiences not usually interested in theatre, with a wide cultural impact that most can only dream of. What is it about this project that has made it so successful?

Well, arguably, the most impressive elements on stage here are Handspring’s incredible puppets. Still images don’t do them justice: what Handspring have managed to achieve is nothing short of marvellous. Three men inside a frame shouldn’t make such a convincing horse – and it’s a testament to the rigourous training they undergo as well as the contraptions they wear that the work they do is so believable. I was lucky enough to get a backstage tour after the show (one of the Ginger’s mates is in the current cast), and it’s just as impressive to speak to one of the operators as it is to see the horses up close; it all looks and sounds so deceptively simple, which is the beauty of puppetry done well.

The thing is, none of this would matter under a different director – Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris both deserve credit for finding the right dramatic format for these beasts to function, as does Nick Stafford for his adaptation of a novel that is certainly not an easy story for the stage. But more on the story later – it’s the subtlety of the direction on a project as mammoth as this that’s the real star of the show. The decision to start with a much simpler foal puppet, with solid legs, at first makes the puppets seem underwhelming (if excellently puppeteered). This makes the introduction of the larger horse puppet for the first time, in a beautifully choreographed sequence, an incredible theatrical moment – one of the finest and most emotionally powerful I’ve experienced in a very long time. Similar moments, including Joey’s (the titular war horse) altercation with an even larger WWI tank, and the wonderful first charge of the mounted officers, are directorial masterpieces. All of these would also be nothing without the excellent design concept, which uses a frequently bare stage and projections to help create these powerful images – a huge credit to a brilliant director/design team.

These gut-wrenching moments, combined with Stafford’s emotionally-charged script, are rather relentless – the Ginger and I managed to hold back tears in the first half, but were blubbing into her scarf all through the second. And while it’s an impressive exercise in emotional involvement, there’s a distinct superficiality to proceedings – so much so that, by the end, I was actually starting to feel distanced from it. To describe the story as trite would be doing it a service – every war-story stereotype is rolled out, and the ridiculous saccharine ending plonks the glacé cherry on top of the overly chocolate-sauced sundae that I imagine many would find hard to swallow. Morpugo’s original story certainly couldn’t be accused of having much more depth, but the over-simplification of the stage show is really too much.

There are also the over-used arguments of rehashing British war stories to bring in the grey pound and reinforce the British war hero stereotype around the world (as well as the inherent racism in the impossibly insulting “decent” German character who speaks horrendously accented English, but let’s move on…), but that’s really the only negative veneer on a rather excellent product. The production is stellar, and a credit to the creatives involved – and I truly can’t give the puppetry work enough praise. Stomach the story, and it’ll be one of the best shows you’ve ever seen.


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