Warhorse National Theatre, 30/10/08

This play was a depiction of a First World War horse so brave that it makes London’s ‘Animals in War Memorial’ seem thoroughly inadequate.

The star was Joey, a life-sized puppet who panted, neighed and whinnied his way from Devon, to France and back again. On his journey he won the hearts of an English farm labourer, a French peasant, a German officer and 1,100 audience members. This was realism so acute it risked the wrath of the RSPCA.

Warhorse: how are there people in there?!
Warhorse: how are there people in there?!
One puppeteer controlled Joey’s head, one was crouching inside controlling the front legs, and one was in the ass’s ass. The design of the puppet, complete with levers, pulleys, knee joints and elasticated neck, allowed the puppeteers to achieve mind-boggling harmony.

When Joey breathed they vibrated gently up and down, when he bucked they raised themselves aggressively but with such composure one’s mind easily swapped wood and fabric for skin and bone.

He carried soldiers, ate hay, pulled a plough, kicked, cantered and kissed. Indeed, so dedicated was the production to the task of conveying a realistic horse, if Joey had needed to relieve himself I’m sure the man at the back would have willingly obliged.

Anybody who has ever marvelled at the humanness of animals would be enthralled by how effectively Joey blurred the categories.

There was a profound emotional interaction between horse and man, achieved verbally and physically in countless delicately acted moments. Take the scene of Joey’s breaking-in: the fiery young colt cowers into a corner and refuses to be harnessed. The farmer whips him into producing an eerie scream. Another whip and Joey kicks the farmer in the chest. As the farmer goes off-stage in a rage, his son speaks to Joey gently and harnesses him with disarming charm.

Through this scene, the audience witnesses the emotional similarity of animals and humans; the same dramatic point could have been made by showing a schoolboy getting smacked for an un-tucked shirt and then his Mum lovingly tucking it in.

The wonderfully implausible story, taken from a Michael Morpurgo children’s book, crescendos in a field hospital where the wounded Joey has a gun to his head with a doctor about to pull the trigger.

The audience, who has by this time seamlessly erased the puppeteers from the puppet, finds itself utterly moved by his impending doom. But neither the book nor the play are designed to hammer home the futility of war.

The play ends with Joey back in Devon living happily ever after. In reality however, of the one million horses sent to France during WW1, most were killed, many were sold to French dinner tables, and 62,000 returned.

But another miserably morbid representation of WWI, whilst accurate, would have been as overdone as a Big Mac. With its optimistic twist, War Horse feels much more like Gourmet Burger Kitchen’s finest, cooked in fantasy and served on a bed of remarkably well-honed puppetry.

‘Warhorse ‘ is sold out until 24th January. Tickets for next booking period are available on 21st November.

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