Going into the New Theatre last night, nothing could have prepared me for the experience that is reviewing War Horse. I had come with a friend and we had split the price of a ticket as mine was free, and we felt quite chuffed catching a West End show for a tenner. But the minute we got to the theatre, we were guided to a VIP side entrance and handed a golden envelope containing two free tickets to the show, a complementary program, and an invitation to press night gala. We descended the carpeted stairs and were greeted by waiters serving free wine (I think it was merlot but I liked neither the red nor the white, it just felt fancy). There were a lot of old and important-looking people, pink mood lighting, and easy jazz coming from the grand piano in the corner. In the interval we were given a selection of free ice cream. After the show, we were served vegan-and-gluten-free canapes as we mingled with the cast of the show.
I discovered I have a hidden talent for mingling (or else the cast were just really nice).
My friend and other people there said a lot of very good things about the show before we went in, though I had never seen it, read it or watched the film. So as we settled in our seats, I tried to be purposefully sceptical.
The play started with an old man singing a folk song. This man made the show. War Horse is an intense story about the first world war, love, loss and friendship, and Bob Fox’s pure singing voice broke up the tension in absolute relief. He captured the stage with an expressive yet understated presence, and an irony that winked to the audience in spite of the story. The acting in the first half didn’t excite me – Albert was a two-dimensional stereotype of innocence, and his relationship with his parents was unconvincing. But the rest of the action on stage – the lights, the set design, the music and the puppetry – was beautifully done with incredible attention to detail. I remember a particular recurring moment in which a puppet goose ran into a door, and each time it crashed it would just steal a little look to the side, as though it was checking that it hadn’t embarrassed itself before going on its way again. The subtleties in the first half were really the strength of the piece, and gave it a kind of sparkle in spite of the weak characterisation.
(After our free ice cream) the second half was much more powerful than the first. The acting improved with the intensifying storyline, and the choreography of the war scenes was skilfully done. A special mention must be given to Peter Becker, who shone in the role of Friedrich Müller. There was a beautiful vulnerability to his character, and a varied emotional range, which flourished as the story progressed. And naturally, the puppeteering was incredible. In the scene when Joey is alone in no man’s land, I was struck by how well a horse’s experience of life could be expressed using only music, puppetry and physical theatre. By the end, there was a definite sense of or awe in the show. The puppetry, film and music gave a kind of magnitude to the story that left me thinking ‘wow, this is really something’.
Still, I didn’t cry and I laughed infrequently. But War Horse was a really special and entertaining night out. Though the acting was variable, the show was carried with its head held high by the technical elements. The puppetry, the film, the set, and Bob Fox were just astonishing. If you’re looking for a clear message, it’s this: guys, go for the horse.