War Horse at The Lowry

Kevin Bourke

War Horse comes to The Lowry theatre – but does the much lauded production deserve such high praise?

Already the biggest box-office hit in The Lowry’s twelve year history, it’s beyond doubt that War Horse is a remarkable theatrical spectacle and fully deserving of its standing ovation on opening night. Particularly astonishing skills have been brought to bear on the creation of the horses, including the brave and loyal equine hero Joey – the sound and lighting is also simply terrific. The performances are accompanied by some stirring songs, arranged by John Tams (something of a folk hero himself) and the overhead projections are imaginative and informative. Undeniably, the sheer scale of the whole thing is mind-bogglingly epic: I defy anyone to remain unimpressed.

However, War Horse is not quite the flawlessly brilliant creation that popular imagination and some overheated reviews credit it to be. The human characters often feel so two-dimensional they verge on caricature, while, despite the excision of a lot of material from Michael Morpurgo’s source novel (ironically, some of which provided the best scenes in Spielberg’s mostly lacklustre film version), there are longueurs in the narrative. The scenes involving Joey’s traumatic involvement with “good” and “bad” German soldiers are over-lengthy and parallel a frankly rather irritating subplot involving a little French girl. That said, the emotional and brilliantly theatrical payoff to these scenes is thrilling and moving, so perhaps directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, as well as adapter Nick Stafford, knew exactly what they were doing after all.

War Horse is not quite the brilliant creation that some overheated reviews credit it to be

In the last few years, Michael Morpurgo has witnessed the transformation of his World War One-inspired “story of reconciliation and reunion, inspired by a tarnished old oil painting of some unknown horse by a competent but anonymous artist” into an astonishingly successful show, seen by over three million people around the world. It is no longer, he believes, “simply a show or a play about a war, a horse and a boy. It is an anthem for peace and reflects, I think, a universal longing for a world without war.” It’s also a show with real love in its heart, despite the horror and fear of so much that you see.

For those who haven’t read the book, or seen the film, the story opens in a small Devon village just before the outbreak of the “war to end all wars.” Young Albert Narracott (Lee Armstrong) and his family are struggling for economic survival on a poor farm but his father’s impetuous, apparently ill-judged, purchase of a foal named Joey changes Albert’s life. Boy and horse become so devoted to each other that when, at the outbreak of World War I, Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France, it’s only a matter of time before Albert follows him into the bloody mayhem of the war in Europe. As Albert tries to find his beloved Joey, we see the horror of that war through the eyes of the horse as he passes through the lives of British and German troops, civilians and even other horses. In fact, one of the most moving scenes in a show that’s unflinchingly full of suffering and death is the passing of Joey’s equine friend Topthorn, whose mighty heart gives out while pulling heavy guns through the mud and blood.

As many people have already remarked, no praise is too high for the astonishing way the artists onstage and backstage from Handspring Puppet Company manage to bring the horses, particularly Joey, not merely to life but so convincingly so that you’d swear they were listening or watching. So War Horse is not, by any stretch of the imagination, flippant entertainment designed to lightly part families from their money over the festive season. Despite my reservations about the depiction of the human characters, this show is a truly remarkable, utterly unique experience. Get tickets if you possibly can for this run (which has virtually sold out) or wait until it returns to The Lowry next year. But don’t miss it.

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