Oxford Review Theatre

Warhorse at the New Theatre Oxford

A review by Nicholas Newman
Rory Bremner at New Theatre Oxford

Warhorse is a different type of stage production, there is much to recommend it. Many in the audience including the impressionist and comedian Rory Bremner were full of expectation before this unique production opened its curtains to reveal the stark stage.

 

This drama is based on the novel by children’s author Michael Morpurgo. The plot has been adapted into a stage play by Nick Stafford in a joint venture with National and Handspring Puppet Company.

 

The puppets you see on the stage are not the ones we are familiar with in the Muppets or even Wallace and Gromit. Instead, it is the clear inspiration for both the animated horses, birds and the tank comes from the drawings da Vinci, many of which are in the Queens own art collection at Windsor Castle.

 

The basic plot of the story is about a young man Albert (Thomas Dennis) and his horse Joey. They meet up at an auction when his dad beats his rival in bidding for the horse. When the horse arrives home, Albert is set the task of training it, in order to trade it up for resale as a hunter.

 

As for the puppetry, Joey is a full-sized puppet horse made from wood and metal. At the start of the story, the horse is a relatively small puppet, but as it grows older, the horse puppet is transformed into an adult version; you will see three puppeteers manipulating the various actions of the horse. One is there to manipulate the head and the others r the body. What is great is that one soon forgets that these are puppets and instead accepts the variously animated horses as if they are real.

 

In addition, during various parts of the story, we see Bob Fox come on the stage to sing various English country folk music songs that are familiar to those who are fans of the Sharp TV series, which was set during the Napoleonic wars.

 

WAR HORSE UK Tour 2017

Inevitably, the story moves on and with the start of the First World War, Joey is bought by the local regiment to serve in the cavalry. I think here they did not make enough of how many of the previous lessons about war were now largely redundant. Such as use of cavalry etc. We see one reckless cavalry charge where the horses die amidst gunfire and barbed wire.

 

In a sense, I felt this production was a much grimmer version of the satire on the First World War known as ‘Oh what a lovely war. Though even so I was disappointed at some historic mistakes made by the production including that of machine guns, being used in war was just a First World War phenomenon. When in fact, the first machine guns introduced into military service was in 1862 by the U.S. Navy. Early versions of it were used in the American Civil War, Canada’s North-West Rebellion and the Franco-Prussian war in Europe.

 

Anyway, at the start of the First World War our hero Albert is too young to be recruited into the Armed Forces and has to lie about his age, so he can join the army and find his horse, Joey.

 

From then on, we see the battle re-enacted across the stage with men, puppet horses, barbed wire et cetera movingly showing the trials and tribulations that occurred during the First World War. Whether Joey and Albert find each other, well you just have to see the show.

 

As to the stage design by Rae Smith is brilliantly conceived, but keep I thought the lighting made it difficult to see the actors faces, whilst the often very loud music and noise, did not help to make it clear at times what was being actually said.

 

One thing is clear, one felt at times one was in a Roman arena, where soldiers had to re-enact a battle. Whether, I would recommend it to my friends, if you have problems with loud music, stage explosions, and flashing lights, perhaps not. However, for those who do not, it is certainly a unique experience, which is well worth seeing.

 

For more info: http://www.warhorseonstage.com/

 

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