War Horse @ The Mayflower, Southampton
Puppets can be funny. They can be educational and (in the case of Avenue Q), they can be filthy too. But can they truly move you?
I’ll be honest I’ve long harboured doubts about War Horse. It’s been a hugely popular ticket in London for years, but then so has Mamma Mia… But unlike the latter show, War Horse spawned a movie that’s actually very good!
It was with a healthy mix of apprehension and excitement then that I made my way to the Mayflower to finally settle once and for all what all the fuss was about. First impressions were that this was certainly a popular choice. I’m famous for being the first to arrive at any occasion, but there was a healthy crowd preceding me through the doors here.
By the time the house lights dropped there was barely an empty seat in the house (and a fair few people in the standing room only areas). Almost immediately I realised this would be so much more than I had imagined. The stage almost bare, a strip of what appears to be torn paper crosses toward the top of the proscenium arch and as the story progresses we’ll see the contents of Lieutenant Nicholls’ sketch book appear, from the simple pencil drawings of Devonshire countryside to the harsh charcoal lines of the trenches and the blocks of dark and light denoting shells exploding.
We meet our two protagonists at an auction, Albert Narracott is a young man who hasn’t yet found himself, Joey is a horse. For all that Lee Armstrong lends Albert a noble simplicity and an immediately likeable warmth, the eye is immediately drawn to the foal galloping around the enclosure. There, I’ve already forgotten that this is a frame of cane with a little canvas thrown in for good measure and three people manipulating it…
As we watch Albert form a bond with the young horse we see them both change. The lad becomes confident in himself while the clumsy foal grows into a graceful charger. The moment they first ride together rings a tear from the eye. The first of many to come!
Albert’s father, deep in debt and deeper in his bottle of scrumpy, sells the horse to the army as an officers steed and he’s shipped to France to carry Nicholls (Finn Hanlon) into battle alongside Captain Stewart and his coal black thoroughbred Topthorn.
The horses leap into the midst of battle before ending up lost and being utilised to pull a German ambulance where they are taken in by Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, a German cavalryman who senses that these creatures are more noble than his fellow soldiers. Martin Wenner’s Friedrich is wonderfully balanced and drives home the point that on both sides most of the soldiers were just normal men and women serving their monarchs. His interaction with Nise Cole’s Emilie provides some of the more heart-warming human interaction.
The night belongs to the horses though. Imbued with as much character and life as any of their human counterparts they wring every emotion from the audience. The use of traditional acapella folk music in the form of Bob Fox’s Song Man binds things together, his beautiful baritone cutting through the silence.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Matthew Forbes, one of the behind the scenes team during the interval. Matthew has been a part of War Horse for a number of years as actor, puppeteer and now directing and supporting the puppeteers. His immense joy at being involved in the tour shows just how much this piece means to the performers as well as the audience.
In short, I was wrong, puppets can make you feel a whole spectrum of emotion, but most of all they can make you forget they aren’t real and can bring a world alive, all thanks to the creative genius of the people controlling them, the people you don’t notice.
Fitting really, as Michael Morpurgo’s book aims to help us remember the herculean efforts that went unnoticed for so long…
A special mention too to Joseph Richardson. If you’ve seen the show you’ll understand when I say the goose steals the scenes he’s in!