The National Theatre's puppet-powered First World War epic is one of the boldest West End shows ever
Five years on, the National Theatre's 'War Horse' has become ubiquitous. The toast of the West End and Broadway, as I write this it's sold out at the New London Theatre for the next two months – by contrast, you can book to see 'Matilda' next week.
Its enormous success has negated the impact of Arts Council funding cuts on the NT, to the extent that the show has started to be singled out by some commentators as an example of 'safe' post-credit crunch programming.
And, of course, there's the Steven Spielberg film, a curious affair sparked by the director's genuine love of the play, in which he gives Michael Morpurgo's 1982 a lavish screen treatment that has everything bar the one thing that made the play so special in the first place.
That is, of course, Handspring's astonishing life-size puppets. Skeletally modernist in form but utterly, magically alive thanks to their talented army of puppeteers and Toby Sedgwick's phenomenal choreography, they are the true stars of Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott's production.
Without them, Morpurgo's tale of how Devon-dwelling teen Albert Narracott signed up to throw himself into the meat grinder of World War I – in order to track down his beloved horse Joey – would be a likeable, humane, slightly formulaic introduction to the catastrophe of the war. With them, it is something different entirely, a virtuoso spectacle that combines grit and charm in equal measure.
Joey is a multifaceted delight and the clumsy wheeled goose which shares his farm home is just enchanting. But in the war scenes the puppets take on another aspect entirely, ragged horses and – in an astonishing coup de theatre – an Allied battle tank spilling out into the stark, monochrome stage like something out of Picasso's 'Guernica'. The suggestion that this stylized, often pummelling spectacle was ever a surefire blockbuster is patently silly.
'War Horse' is not flawless. Morpurgo wrote a kids' book, not 'War and Peace' and there are moments of sentiment and contrivance in Nick Stafford's adaptation that are at odds with the austere sweep of the directors' vision. And, while the human actors are very solid for a West End long-runner, I was consistently aghast at Steve Nicolson's ludicrously hammy German-with-a-conscience Gefreiter Karl.
Yet these criticisms feel minor. Entrenched in the heart of Theatreland, 'War Horse' is thrillingly other: technically and visually singular and an oft-unflinching depiction of the futility and horror of conflict. It hasn't slimmed or dumbed down on its move to the West End, à la 'Les Mis'. And because the puppets are the leads, it will never be diminished by cast changes. It is not the greatest play of our time, but it could well be the best West End show.
Average User Rating
4.2 / 5
- 5 star:33
- 4 star:11
- 3 star:7
- 2 star:2
- 1 star:3
Spectacular puppeteering, the stage set up was brilliant, making every seat in the house unusually visual. The musical addition to the story was superb. The whole thing was moving, unique and believeable. The star of the show - the goosey gander!
Visually spectacular, as you'd expect, but for me the relationship between man and horse was a little hard to buy in to. Still, I've never owned a horse, so maybe it's just me. Some good performances, but it's hardly a subtle play, more a fireworks display of staging and engineering wonders.
It is one of those once in a lifetime productions that can't be missed. This production moved me to tears (in a good way) and the horses were almost more alive than real horses - how can that be? A performance that will live long in the memory!
Three languages are spoken in the show, making it sometimes hard to follow. BUT its good and recommended.
Truly enjoyed this fantastic show from start to finish! The horses were dazzling and so exciting to watch come alive. The acting was spot-on and the story line itself was easy to get caught up in. I would recommend this show to anyone who loves a good show and anyone who needs a good cry… bring tissues!
Incredible performance. The horses were amazing, this is the best show I have seen in the West End so far. It really is a must see.
We were truly impressed when we saw Phantom of the Opera, in its inaugural year and were equally impressed by Marti Webb portraying Evita a short while after. There followed several decades of less than memorable theatre, which was finally relieved, about two years ago, when we were able to see a fantastically athletic performance of Michael Frayne's, Noises- Off....... And then on Monday 25th November 2013, we witnessed a stunning performance of Warhorse, which we have added to our all-time list of theatrical landmarks. Life is really too short to miss this.
War Horse initially did not attract me, but intrigued me after such good reviews. NOTHING made me ready for the emotional turmoil I felt... I had no tissues & my heart was opened & wept with the story & the acting realism, War Horse team are creating magic & sharing love every day in this wonderful story. Like nothing I have seen before, the puppet framed horses were MORE real than real, because of their very fragility. Brilliant production.
Went here with 3 different generations of the family at the weekend. Fantastic show, so cleverly designed and really engaging. Having read the book and seen the film, I wasn't disappointed by the performance - it was innovative and fun....and enjoyed by the whole family!
I took my 9 and 13 year old sons to see this. We booked last minute and had restricted view seats which weren't great but didn't ruin it either although I would definitely recommend getting seats facing straight onto the stage not side views if you can. The boys both enjoyed the show although I think they found the parts involving some script in German and French difficult to follow. It certainly got them talking anyway! As an adult, I loved it. I've read the book but not seen the film and this has been on my 'to do' list for quite some time. Having read the book, the ending seemed a bit too shortened for me but nevertheless it's definitely a show I'd highly recommend. Everyone's seen the puppets on tv and in pictures, but the way the puppeteers work them is quite incredible, so life-like.
Absolutely worth seeing. Yes predictable storyline maybe, but still moving. The horses were incredible. Agree with an earlier comment, they start out as puppets, but by the end, hard to believe they are not real!
Disappointing. It was flat, with one -dimensional characters, poor acting and predictable plot. Generally a shameless tear-jerker. Puppetry of the warhorse itself was only so-so. I would say that even The Lion King has a better puppetry, more depth, better songs and better acting... One thing amazes me - why didn't the paid reviewers see it? Guessing by the reviews here, I am not alone in my views.
I bought a cheap ticket, however it wasnt one of the ones with a 'restricted view' warning, imagine my surorise when I could only see half the stage! Luckily the show was not a sell out so my neighbour and I coukd shift around a bit. I agree that the script and acting was not 5 star, however I didnt expect it to be. I loved the puppets and pupeteers, truly well done and very life like. The main character stole the show, but only just from the goose! I recommend this show for a matinee viewing.
Bought the tickets through Time Out which I won't be doing again as they were £16 (Each) more than the price on the ticket. The play was disappointing. Great production but the narrative was as weak as water. Even for a play from a children's book, are there seriously any adults out there who found the story engaging, interesting and thought provoking?
this is the only play which I liked even more during the play. In the beginning I felt that the props for horses were stupid. At the end of the play I felt like the props were actual horses!
The show is brilliant (despite the clichéd happy ending). I strongly recommend it. The puppetry is fantastic and the simple songs are incredibly moving.
Truly awful and devastatingly boring after the first hour. If you enjoy acting, music, plot, or your time/money then this "play" is not for you. The puppetry is impressive, but the shoddy script and acting left me wishing that the same puppets were in a better production. If they ever lower the astronomical prices for the seats it may be worth taking small children to or just seeing so that you may form your own opinion. However, at the current pricing scheme I felt duped for going. Really, just go see Phantom or Les Miz (which deserve 8 stars each if this rubbish deserves 5).
Just wow. This was one of the best things I have seen on stage in years, and that despite the fact that the actual story is a lot of sentimental tosh. Forget the story - just watch and enjoy one of the best stagings ever. Most of all, this is miles better than the Spielberg film, which, having around the same amount of time to play with as the stage performance, managed to cut bits of the story which actually rendered it incoherent as well as tearjerking (Captain Nicholls). Can't compare to the book as I could not bring myself to read it. Go see it for the pure theatrical experience, you won't regret it. The rating is justified for that alone.
Echo RL&F's comments below. Exceptional puppeteering but once you've marvelled at that for a while you're left with two and a half hours of poor script, a clunky, obvious plot with mawkish ending and school-play level acting. We were in £52 seats to one side of the dress circle but were unable to see some scenes at all as they were set on the far right of the stage. The theatre is tatty and uncomfortably hot with inadequate air conditioning/ventilation - seriously in need of refurbishment.
Astonishing, brilliant puppetry (5 stars for that). 1 star for the rest - no, make that 2 stars, for the sparsely effective staging. Cardboard characters, amateur school play level acting (no disrespect to school plays intended - actually, I've seen far better than this from amateurs), weak script, show failed to engage us emotionally (partly due to the frequent descents into raising a laugh through cheap gags). Go with the expectation of seeing a seriously-themed kid's pantomime and you'll be thrilled.