Based on the 1982 novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse returns to Melbourne to dazzle audiences at the newly refurbished Regent Theatre. The play exhibits a deeply moving and emotional story about the bond between a boy and his horse during the outbreak of WWI accompanied by stellar puppetry, captivating lighting effects and stirring music and songs.
Right from the opening moments, when the music begins to whir and we see a young Joey getting accustomed to the world around him, the story is gripping and locks you in emotionally. As soon as we first lock eyes on Joey and Albert (Scott Miller) together, the emotional weight of their bond is grand. On top of their story, this play also carries the weight of the entire first world war with it, making it all the more thrilling, heartwarming and heart-wrenching. As someone who didn’t know the story of War Horse, the narrative is constantly riding into no mans land, taking turns that are emotionally shocking and keep me locked in the entire way through. From the first act through to the second, it’s a perfect balance of fast-paced, action-packed storytelling in the midst of all-out war and slower, character-driven moments that focus on showing the growth of certain individuals.
This story is truly remarkable! It gets the emotions running and tears flowing but also doesn’t forget to bring enjoyment through laughter. The ability to draw comedy out of a story set in such a dire situation is brilliant, and each comedic beat hit exactly as intended as the crowd of the Regent Theatre regularly erupted into laughter in unison. With the humour, emotion and harrowing themes of war, the overall tone of the play remains consistent throughout as the focus remains locked on Joey and Albert no matter who is on stage. Their story and their bond is strong enough to carry the play on its own, but the various side character arcs occurring at the same time turn it into a more fulfilling and all-encapsulating look at the war.
From a technical standpoint, the life-size puppetry of both Joey and Topthorn is unbelievably phenomenal. Controlled simultaneously by three puppeteers each, they mimic the real-life movement and behaviour of horses so realistically that they may as well be real horses. It makes it distinctly easy to look past the fact that these are elaborate puppets and buy into them as being characters, just as the humans are. It’s a wonder in and of itself, watching the horses gallop majestically around the stage, and by far the most rewarding and astounding aspect of this play. Props need to be given to the performers responsible for making all of the horse noises with their mouths, as they could not possibly be more accurate and realistic.
The harrowing nature of war is emphasised, rather dramatically, through the use of lighting and audio effects I’m surprised didn’t blow the roof of the Regent. They bring further intensity to the story and enhance the impact of the dramatic war-centric moments and, for the most part, the execution is spot on. Although, my only gripe with the play is that these effects could have been toned down a couple of notches as at some points it comes across as bombastic noise for the sake of bombastic noise. There’s an extent to which these effects would enhance the impact of certain key moments and I feel like had the dial been turned down it would have had the same effect. It’s a minor quarrel, but one that might leave a ringing in your ear on exiting the theatre.
In contrast to the loud and bright explosions, the soothing sound of Ben Murray’s folk music encapsulates the heart and tone of the more uplifting and sombre moments to perfection. Whenever he graces the stage with his presence, he’s like a shining light on the story that brings you right back down to the focus on Joey and Albert.
In the end, War Horse is a truly outstanding production that phenomenally depicts the uplifting and emotionally trying journey of a young boy trying to re-unite with his horse in the midst of a tragic war. The breathtaking puppetry is the main draw with all other elements, from the staging and performances to the music and visual effects, working together to craft an unforgettable experience that will stick with you long after exiting the theatre.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
War Horse is in Melbourne for a limited season at the Regent Theatre through to February 8th. For more information and to purchase tickets, head HERE.
The reviewer attended the performance on 15 January 2020
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg