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Theatre Review: War Horse *****

Michael Cox reviews the 'heartbreakingly brilliant' production.

When a production has been running for over 10 years and has amassed esteemed awards and rave reviews worldwide, the question isn’t whether it’s any good. The question is: does such a production still hold up?

The answer here is a very clear: absolutely!

At its heart, War Horse is a simple story. Beginning before the break of the First World War, the play focuses on farm boy Albert and his horse Joey. The first half mostly stays in Devon and watches Albert as he trains Joey, rising above the wrath and foolishness of his alcoholic father while being encouraged by his loving mother. But when war breaks out, the father sells Joey to the army. Albert soon enlists in order to find Joey and bring him back home.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, the story itself is rather sprawling and has a large ensemble of characters, most of whom are only around for a short time. The true appeal of directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s production is the breath-taking staging. Projections give a cinematic scope; gunshots, loud explosions and flashing lights create harsh realities of war while music and songs bring emotional poignancy to key scenes.

But the aspect this production is famous for is Handspring Puppet Company’s craftsmanship. Birds dot the skyline and a cheeky goose steals the show whenever it’s on, but the lynchpin of the entire production is the design work of the horses, a theatrical revelation that is truly astounding. Main character Joey and friend Topthorn are marvels to behold. Each brought to life by three performers, the horses gallop and emote, becoming characters easy to invest in.

The company of actors in this current tour, the second to hit the UK, are uniformly excellent. Thomas Dennis’ Albert starts off wide-eyed and innocent but is filled with plucky determination that’s easy to root for, and Peter Becker gives needed humane poignancy in the war-torn second half as German officer Friedrich. Most of the company play multiple roles and go back and forth with ease, creating a tapestry of interesting characters easy to care about.

War Horse is theatre at its most theatrical. It is a miraculous combination of direction, acting, writing and design to tell a humane, universal story. Heartbreakingly brilliant, it deserves its high praise and should not to be missed.

War Horse is at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh until May 12 before continuing its UK tour.

Tags: theatre

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