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Theatre Review: War Horse

Monday 20 May 2013

Theatre Review: War Horse

If you’re yet to take in the spectacle that is the critically acclaimed War Horse at the Sydney Lyric Theatre then now is the time. A National Theatre of Great Britain and Global Creatures’ production, the show’s successful four-month run in Sydney will come to an end next month ahead of a new season at the Lyric Theatre at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

War Horse follows young boy, Albert Narracott (Cody Fern) and his beloved horse, Joey, from the quiet of the Narracott family farm in Devon in 1913, through the outbreak of the First World War and onto the front line in war torn France. Despite the play being set amidst the horrors of the Great War, it is the unique relationship between Albert and Joey that takes centre stage in this production.

Those who have seen Steven Speilberg’s Academy Award nominated 2011 film adaptation may approach the stage production with a level of unease – we did. How are they going to show the connection between man and horse with a puppet? Indeed, Joey, as a foal and as a colt, is brought to life through a team of six puppeteers – two operating the horse’s legs and one animating the head. With Joey as a foal, we see three puppeteers dressed as stable hands, huddled around a small frame of metal, wood and fabric. It is clever craftsmanship, but the team do unfortunately crowd the puppet foal at times meaning you are often trying to look past the operators to see the character. It is not until we meet the full grown Joey that the gadgetry involved in this production really hits you. Well, you can’t exactly miss it, as Joey is at least 8ft tall! The puppet horse trots, whinnies and rears up with the pull of a lever or push of a rod and moves just like a horse you’d see in a roadside paddock in any part of rural Australia and is equally as expressive – a simple twitch of the ear or nod of the head is somehow enough to show the immense love between Albert and his equine friend.

In the interval of the Saturday matinee performance, I overheard a few theatregoers comment about the weak plot. To be honest, that’s not the reason you watch this play; it is true the story mightn’t flow as seamlessly on stage as it does on page or screen but it’s the chemistry between performers that tug on your heartstrings and leaves you completely enthralled. And it’s not just between Albert and Joey but between the colt and Lieutenant James Nicholls (Dale March) - who takes Joey into battle - and Captain Fredrich Muller (Andrew Tighe) and also Albert and his solider friend Private David Taylor (Andre de Vanny).

This is an emotionally charged production that doesn’t leave an eye dry. We even spotted a number of men wiping away tears as the curtain fell so be warned, even if you don’t consider yourself a softy or an animal lover, bring tissues!

- Amelia Parrott