Theatre Review: War Horse
By Brianne Hogan
Albert (Alex Furber) with his beloved steed Joey in War Horse (Image: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)
Much has been said about War Horse, the First World War tale of a boy and his horse, which is running at the Princess of Wales Theatre. You’ve probably heard about its mind-blowing puppetry, its inventive staging and the necessity of a box of tissues for its heart-tugging moments. I’m pleased to report that all those rumours are true: you will definitely be in awe, and dab your eyes, during this visually stunning production.
For those who haven’t watched the recent Steven Spielberg-directed film, read Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children's book (on which the movie and stage play is based) or seen the production that was first staged in 2007 by the National Theatre of Britain, the story of War Horse follows the same formula of most tragic love stories: boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy gets horse back.
In this case, the boy is Albert (Alex Furber), the son of drunken Devonshire farmer, Ted Narracott (Brad Rudy). The horse is Joey, who is bought by Ted at an auction. Albert ultimately tames the headstrong Joey and forms a deep-lasting bond with the horse, only to have his heart broken when Ted sells Joey to the British army in 1914, at the brink of the First World War. The remainder of the play consists of Albert’s four-year-long quest to be reunited with his beloved steed, which means lying about his age to enlist in the army, and coming dangerously close to death’s door. Clearly, this is no ordinary bromance.
In the role of Albert, Furber convincingly conveys the inexplicable love and devotion between horse and master (the scene at the hospital is a most devastatingly powerful one where many tissues were used by yours truly) but the true stars of the show are Joey and his equestrian comrades, astonishingly created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company with seemingly simple handiworks made of wood, cane and canvas.
Three puppeteers, who are truly stars in their own right, operate Joey. With two under the horse's back and hindquarters, and the other standing beside the creature, manoeuvring its head, Joey magically comes to life with extraordinary detail and realism. So real, that within minutes, the puppeteers seem to disappear and the horse comes alive on its very own.
One of my favourite, and most remarkable, moments in the play is when Joey changes from foal to stallion, literally, before our eyes. It’s a spectacular transformation and showcases the visual wizardry behind the puppets.
The script is less-than-great, but that’s really secondary when the production itself is a sight to behold. From the battle scenes to the emotionally tense climax (where more tissues were used by yours truly), be prepared to be amazed and surprised at what the power of theatre and imagination can create.
War Horse is, without a doubt, a whole different theatrical animal.
War Horse, Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., 416-872-1212. Tues.-Sat. Runs indefinitely. $35-$130.