“Do I look like an effing equine expert?”
The theatrical behemoth that is War Horse shows no signs of flagging (or ending up as a Tesco burger just yet…) but as someone who is easily freaked out by puppets and isn’t particularly keen on horses, its charms have eluded me somewhat. I was taken to see the show for my birthday in 2011 after declaring it was the only way I would ever see it (review here) and from the awkwardly placed cheap seats in the side circle, it was a difficult place from which to try and challenge my preconceptions. Surprisingly for me though, it was the actual play I had the biggest problem with rather than the puppets.
But when the opportunity presented itself to go again with a friend who had never seen the show before, I couldn’t resist the temptation to revisit the show and revisit my opinion with something less of the original baggage I went with. And with this somewhat different mindset and also aided by far superior seats, I did find myself enjoying it far more than I had anticipated. Indeed I welled up more than during the film of Les Misérables, leaving me questioning just who I’ve turned into!
Being prepared for what was actually happening onstage rather my expectations opened my eyes to the charming nature of the first half (though I’d still roast that goose given half a chance) and there are undeniably magical moments of theatre that come from Handspring’s puppetry, not least the first appearance of the adult Joey which not even familiarity with the puppet can dull. (And in today’s economic climate, who could honestly deny the NT the invaluable marketing opportunities from showcasing one of their greatest successes).
But even in this happier state of affairs, some doubts still persisted about the show as a whole. The story is really quite slight as it races across Devon cornfields and then French battlefields as little time is ever devoted to these characters – why does Albert apparently have no friends in the village, major plots points like cousin Billy’s shell-shock and Muller’s dramatic volte-face are quickly despatched with no depth. And structurally, there is little disguising the way in which the show lurches from set piece to set piece – the folk music hauntingly sung by Bob Fox is undoubtedly atmospheric but sits awkwardly, functional rather than integral, an altogether too easy way of manipulating emotion in a story that really shouldn’t need it.
And I suspect this stems from the tension that comes from adapting a children’s book for a wider market which remains family-friendly. Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel evokes much of the desperate horror of conflict, but the central thrust of the story with its repeatedly equine soft focus is simply too laden with saccharine sentimentality for the brutally effective First World War story that is hinted at elsewhere. Of course in the end, it matters little: the show continues to do great business, remarkably so for a play, and for all my caveats, this is the kind of theatre that people will remember.