War Horse

This simple tale of a horse and his boy amidst the horrors of WWI is brought to thrilling life via sophisticated stagecraft and exquisitely performed puppetry.
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Based on British author Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book, War Horse is the story of Joey, half-thoroughbred and half-draft horse, and Albert Narracott, the country boy who loves him. When Joey is sold to the army by Albert’s drunkard father, becoming a cavalry horse amidst the horrors of the Great War, 16 year old Albert goes to great lengths to bring Joey home, struggling through trenches and gas attacks in a seemingly fruitless quest to be reunited with his steed.

Adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse is a magnificent spectacle, featuring sophisticated and striking stagecraft and remarkable life-size horse puppets made of steel, leather and aircraft cables. Additional puppets, including an engaging comic relief goose, also feature, alongside a sizeable human cast.  

The story itself is a simple one – sometimes frustratingly so. The human drama (such as the rivalry between well-off farmer Arthur Narracott (Nicholas Bell) and his coarser, constantly drunken brother Ted (Ian Bliss), and the corresponding tensions between Ted and his son Albert (Cody Fern)) feels melodramatic, as does the plot as a whole. Accents, including Devon and German, range from solid to inconsistent, and some of the performances, at least on opening night, felt over-played.

But the truth of the matter is that the public won’t be flocking to War Horse to watch the actors: it’s the puppets people are interested in, particularly the adult Joey, who is hands down (or should that be hands high?) the real star of the show. Brought to life by John Shearman, Drew Wilson and Keira Lyons on opening night, the puppet snorts, flicks its ears and tail, and moves remarkably realistically – all the while with the puppeteers hidden in plain sight.

Other elements of War Horse, particularly the sketches which unfold in animated form on a giant scrap of paper suspended above the stage (the relevance of which becomes clear later in the show), the lighting and choreography, and the traditional folks songs which are woven into the narrative, are equally effective. The production’s flirtation with colour-blind casting is also laudable, and refreshing on the often monocultural Australian stage.

An early sequence in which Joey transforms from nervous, shaky colt into adult horse is pure theatrical magic; it brought a tear to this reviewer’s eye and provoked spontaneous applause from the audience. Later scenes, such as the cavalry charge which ends the first half of the show, and a face-off between Joey and a tank in no-man’s land, are equally powerful, while at the production’s heart-tugging climax, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

Sentimental and manipulative it may be, but War Horse is also thrilling, epic, and deeply moving. One doubts we’ll see a more spectacular stage production in 2013.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The National Theatre of Great Britain and Global Creatures present

In association with Arts Centre Melbourne

War Horse
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted by Nick Stafford
In association with Handspring Puppet Company
Originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Australian production directed by Drew Barr

Arts Centre Melbourne
23 December – 10 March

Sydney Lyric Theatre
16 March – 30 June

Queensland Performing Arts Centre
6 July – 4 August

Richard Watts OAM is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, a Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend, and was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize in 2020. In 2021 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Green Room Awards Association. Most recently, Richard received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in June 2024. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts