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Review: War Horse, Oxford

Eleven years after it first premiered, is War Horse still first past the post for must-see theatre? Read our brand new verdict from the New Theatre Oxford gala night.

Based on veteran Brit author Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling children’s novel of the same name, War Horse has gallopped back into New Theatre Oxford for the second time in two years. You might know the film or the book already, it’s a touching, imaginative story of a young Devonshire boy named Albert and the unconditional bond he shares with his horse Joey in the years before and during World War One.

The show premièred at the National Theatre 11 years ago and has had eight record-breaking years on the West End. This tour, which will come to a close at London’s new Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre in October, marks the centenary of Armistice Day, making the show all the more poignant.

But over a decade after its groundbreaking première, is War Horse still worth seeing?

So, the lowdown.

Set at the outbreak of the first World War in Devon, Albert Narracott (played convincingly by Scott Miller, bar a few slips of the Devonshire accent) is gutted when his father sells Joey to the Cavalry and is shipped to France to aid war efforts. The story follows Albert’s extraordinary quest to bring Joey safely home, with the story following the friends’ experience of war from the loss and death in the trenches, through to love and new friendships (pack your tissues, it’s a real tear jerker).

No more spoilers, you’ll have to watch to find out if they reunite.

The puppetry really is the star of this show, it’s incredible. I must admit, I was slightly skeptical about idea that a concoction of steel, leather and aircraft cables can be made to look like a real horse, especially as the operators are always present on stage, but OMG, it works so well.

The Handspring Puppet Company are award-winning for a reason, people! From baby Joey’s rigid wooden legs and tentative steps at the beginning of Act I, to powerful stallion Topthorn’s proud strut, the puppetry wows throughout and, amazingly, you competently forget about the puppeteers. Joey’s transformation from baby foal to grown up hunting horse is a particularly powerful moment.

Creds must also be given to the staging, a stark set with a torn page from a sketchbook, and clever spotlighting which highlights every subtle breath (sounds are made by the actors too), ear movement or hoof clacking on the ground in perfect time.

Albert and David

Special mention must also be given to Jonathan Cobb’s cheeky goose puppet (pictured below), who’s always trying to infiltrate the Naracott’s farmhouse, which is played with the perfect amount of hilarity. Other stand-out performances to look out for came from Albert’s cousin Billy (Danny Hendrix) who plays a young boy torn apart by the horror of war with uncomfortable and convincing raw emotion and Albert’s Mancunian soldier bud David (played by Khalid Daley) who offers horse puns galore.

War Horse is peppered with memorable humorous moments, with the darker scenes juxtaposed with those offering light relief. It’s a real emotional journey, which is why people keep coming back (I seemed to be in a small handful of War Horse first-timers in the audience – one women told me this was her third time watching). It was theatre at its best – immersive, believable, moving and transportive. Go see it if you have the chance.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Anyone who has an appreciation for top-notch theatre, or simply appreciate a fantastic and moving plot line. And if you love horses, obvs.

Not for: Younger kids. The show may be based on a children’s novel but it is quite scary in parts and surprisingly jumpy.

See War Horse at New Theatre Oxford until Sat 7 Sept 

Words: Nancy Serle

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