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Theatre Review: War Horse ****

Scott Purvis reviews 'an emotionally powerful evening'.

In an era of mega-musicals, the National Theatre's epic War Horse has become one of the very, very few mega-plays. Marianne Elliott's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel still packs a punch twelve years after its premiere, and the stadium tour feel of its staging at the SEC makes this one of the theatrical events of the year.

The greatest love story about a man and a horse since Equus, the stage adaptation tells the heart-warming story of Joey, a colt who forms a remarkable bond with sixteen-year old farmer's son, Albert. The horse is sold to the British Army for the king's shilling and the friendship is put to the ultimate test as Albert storms the battlefields of First World War France to find Joey and bring him home. What emerges is a story of the power of hope, friendship and love. And it often sets the heart soaring.

This is a cinematic night of theatre. The soundscape of birdsong is hacked into booms and blasts, powering an immersive dark night of noise. The use of lighting, too, is at times breath-taking, especially as the colour palette shifts and the dappled light of a Devon summer freezes into the impossible grey-blackness of war. Moments of dramatic tension explode from this highly physical piece of theatre, playing as it does with ballet, slow-motion and tableau.

The cast of close to forty actors delivers an emotionally powerful evening. Scott Miller's performance as the young Albert is as tender and innocent as a first friendship whilst Jo Castleton brings some humour and heart to an at times dark evening as the boy's mother. Singing folk songs which could have been hewn from the earth, songperson Ben Murray beautifully captures the soul of a pre-industrial world forced to take up arms and fight new mechanical wars.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the "War Horse" puppet itself, a spectacular feat of engineering that has more life in it than many actors trotting the boards. The scale, the sophistication and the sentimentality of the creature humanises the theme of war in unimagined ways, finding new ways to explore the sheer loss of innocence in those years. Simply put, this beast is iconic.

The running time of nearly three hours would, for many, be enough to see this piece consigned to the knackers yard. Nonetheless, War Horse, mostly, canters along at a decent pace, largely due to the creative treatment of at times devastating content. But now that a century has passed since the end of The War to End All Wars, War Horse is an exceptional reminder of the precarious nature of peace and the redeeming power of friendship.

War Horse’s run has concluded in Glasgow but continues its tour.

Tags: theatre

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