War Horse charges into The Lowry

Kevin Bourke

Co-director Marianne Elliot talks about bringing the multi-award winning National Theatre production to Manchester.

A few weeks ago, it was announced that the North West premiere of War Horse at The Lowry had become the best-selling show in the venue’s 13-year history with 80,000 tickets already sold. Such rampant ticket buying may be hard to comprehend but the stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel is one of the most popular plays of recent times. Telling the story of Albert and his beloved cavalry horse, Joey, the wartime play has been seen by over four million people worldwide, including Will Smith and the “two Madges,” Madonna and Her Majesty The Queen. Steven Spielberg famously wept at the first performance he saw (a lot of people wept when they saw his film version, although not for quite the same reasons, we fear). “War Horse is an extraordinary production,” agrees The Lowry’s Marketing Director, Jon Gilchrist. “We always knew that it would be popular with North West audiences, but the response has surpassed even our expectations.”

An astonishingly high proportion of the acting folk involved in the touring production hail from Manchester and the North West: no less than eleven out of a total cast list of 34. Much loved Cheshire actor, David Fleeshman plays Arthur, while Oldham-born Karen Henthorn, who played Teresa Bryant in Coronation Street, takes on the role of Rose. Emily Aston, sister of Sam Aston (best known as Chesney in Coronation Street) is Paulette and Hulme’s Steven Hillman plays Ted. War Horse’s co-director, Marianne Elliot also hails from Manchester. Daughter to Royal Exchange founder Michael Elliot and actress Rosalind Knight, you might have thought she was to the manor born. On the contrary, Marianne didn’t consider going into directing until her late twenties. “My father didn’t even think I would go to university,” she says. “The thought of me being a director would have been very far-fetched to him.”

“Boring theatre motivates me do something different; something risky, raw, ugly and challenging”

Given Elliot’s glittering career, the late Michael would have to revise his opinion somewhat. At a time when the Exchange wasn’t known for its risk-taking, Elliot staged several Brad Fraser plays and the world premiere of Simon Stephens’ Port, a play about siblings growing up in a deprived area of Stockport. It wasn’t long before she moved on to the Royal Court and now the National Theatre. “There’s a certain type of theatre that I haven’t got any time for at all,” she says, “and that’s established, boring, same-old stuff without any reason or passion. It motivates me to do something different, something risky, raw, ugly and challenging.”

As with any successful director, Elliot has had her share of near-misses too. Hours after War Horse opened on Broadway, Mamma Mia creator, Judy Cramer absolutely assured me that Elliot would direct her Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever – although if anyone could have breathed life into that misbegotten concept, Elliot would have been the one. Happily, the director focused her attentions on War Horse. Michael Morpurgo may have been shocked when the National Theatre approached him about the dramatisation of his children’s book but he was even more amazed when Elliott and her co-director Tom Morris explained that they would be using puppets. Incorporating a life-sized mechanical horse into a stage play may have seemed unfeasible but it worked and Elliot won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play in 2011. As she says, “If it’s just another run-of-the-mill show, then what’s the point?”

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