(Rated 5/5 )
I was warned by a good friend NOT to see Warhorse, having confided to this friend that I cannot watch a horserace without crying. A dog is a man’s best friend – so true – and I have one who is mine. Yet the empathy I feel for horses allows them right to the inside of my heart and from there any emotion they have feels magnified from within that core of me. They are the noblest and most beautiful of animals. And they are the puppet stars of this hit show.
Tears - no problem – I don’t mind a good cry and so off I go armed with plenty of tissues and I thought a forewarned and thus fortified heart. Within seconds Joey, the foal had penetrated those fortifications and I was in floods. All he did was come on stage. I say all, but in that all, the form of the puppet and the attention to detail of a horse’s movements, mannerisms, emoting, noises, foibles and attitudes were fully present. You see three puppeteers billed as the head (Sarah Mardel), heart (Jack Parker) and hind (Ellie Burrow) of the animal, and yet they all become part of the whole such that you love the full single being. And with that comes the suspension of disbelief even though in front of you it is so obviously a wooden horse held together and animated by three people.
And so Joey’s story begins, being sold in an auction that sets up the conflict between brothers Arthur and Ted Narracot as they outbid each other far beyond their means in an ongoing rivalry. Ted (Andy Williams) wins but then has to confess to wife Rose (Nicola Stephenson) that he has spent the mortgage money. Somehow Joey is going to have to work to pay his way and it is their son Albert (Jack Monaghan) who is assigned the task of training him for the job. There follow absolutely delightful scenes as Joey and Albert bond, developing a special trust and code of communication exclusive to them as Albert trains Joey to work on the Devon Farm that is home.
And then a powerful transformation as Joey rears, and grows, up to become horse Joey played by an even more impressive wooden puppet together with Stephen Harper (head), Stuart Angel (heart) and Thomas Goodridge (hind). Meanwhile we are introduced to Captain Nicholls (Nicholas Bishop) watching the blossoming relationship between man and horse and drawing it in images, which become important and crucial to the story later on, and serve as part of the beautiful projected landscape artwork by designer Rae Smith.
Ted continues to add challenges to Joey’s life in yet another wager with his brother – this time Joey has a week to learn to pull a plough to ‘save his life’ as Albert says in desperate encouragement. And so he does only then to be faced with a far greater challenge…
World War 1 strikes and Joey is sold by Ted (for a large sum) to become a warhorse. Albert is heart-broken but reassured by Captain Nicholls that he will take good care of him. Albert cannot go with Joey as he is too young to join up. However, Joey is introduced to another stallion, Topthorn. The captain puts the two horses together to play out their necessary masculine scuffle – with more excellent puppeteering of the brown and black horse-puppets - before becoming good companions.
The brave captain is killed in battle and Joey’s drama-filled journey continues through encounters good and bad, including with French-girl Emelie (Sarah Mardel again), who befriends him with sugarlumps and German soldiers who threaten his life. Joey’s skills as a plough-horse save him and in teaching his equine friend to also take the equipment, Joey also saves Topthorn. German soldier Friedrich Muller (Patrick Robinson) switches to English to confide in both horses. Following this session with his equine counsellors, Friedrich takes the high risk decision to defect and take the horses to safety with him.
Joey and friends face constant life-threatening dangers. Even though many of these characters have very little stage time we feel for them all. There is huge skill in the narrative, staging and performances of the piece that allows great empathy and many catharses.
Joey’s story is epic, requiring a set to match. There is no disappointment here – the staging is magnificent. Scenes are set through singing voices and cartoon animations appearing on the backdrop. Other puppet characters appear, including a variety of species of bird that seem to symbolize the mood and setting at that point in proceedings, most amusingly a goose, who wants to become a house-goose. Puppets are also used to represent other humans and horses during scenes of battle death and destruction. A revolving stage adds a momentum especially in some of Joey’s longer expeditions – displaying both the beauty of a horse in motion and highlighting the puppeteers extreme skill.
The news of the tragic and unnecessary death of Albert’s cousin Billy – killed by a German soldier using the blade given to him by his father Arthur, simply because he would not give it up – reaches the Narracot family. That, together with the receipt of Captain Nicholls sketchbook, triggers Albert to go in search of Joey, carrying with him the portrait of him and his horse by the captain. In his own quest he also faces numerous dangers; at times his story, that of his family still at home on the farm, and Joey’s all told on different sections of the stage at the same time.
Joey and Albert are both wounded in the leg – they had my sympathies and no sticks to aid them as they limped along. The decision is taken to shoot Joey as there are no facilities to save him.
In another part of the stage Albert, blinded by a gas bomb, is once again fretting about horses being harmed as he and his pal can hear a horse in pain.
A gun is pointed at Joey’s head – it fails to fire.
The gun is aimed once more…
This show is perfectly outstanding! A wonderfully moving story, originally by novelist Michael Morpurgo, based on both disturbing and heart-warming true stories of human and equine sacrifice, collaboration and friendship in the time of War. A story of animals who served: Many were sadly and shockingly let-down by those they served. Many were physically pushed to their limits by their masters and tortured to work by those on the enemy side. For some their human foes became friends, whom they happily served in more of an emotionally supportive role. Above all this is the story of the power of one loving bond between a boy and his horse. A literal must-see!