Review – War Horse

Jan 29 2014 | By More

★★★★★ Big and emotional

Joey in full flight. Photo © Ellie Kurttz

Joey in full flight. Photo © Ellie Kurttz

Festival Theatre
Wed 22 Jan – Sat 15 Feb
Review by Thom Dibdin

Ambitious in scope and able to deliver on every level, War Horse  – at the Festival theatre for a sold-out run until 15 February – is a spectacular and emotional ride.

Here, in a wonderfully vibrant telling, is Michael Morpurgo’s simple story of a boy and his horse. A Devon lad in the early years of the 20th century whose dad, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, spends the mortgage money on a hunter foal for his son.

Yet it is so much more than that. Under the direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris it is a hymn for peace, an anthem against conflict and a prayer for reconciliation. All told in terms which are designed to engage with its audience to maximum effect.

The tension surrounding that purchase forms part of the complex emotional chemistry which weaves through the whole piece. It might be little more than an intransigence between brothers, but in its own terms it is as powerful, fierce and unassailable a conflict as the world war during which much of the play is set.

Between these two conflicts, the local family feud and the world war – the one an echo of the other – is a simple coming of age tale. Relating how a boy grows out from under the heels of his father to become a man in his own right.

And on this human level, Lee Armstrong who plays the farmer’s son Albert Narracott is the show’s star. In a strong and physical performance, Armstrong portrays a teenager embarrassed by his father’s foibles, who takes on the challenge of breaking in the foal.

Then there is the horse himself: Joey. Created as a full-scale puppet with three operators, as a foal he canters and frolics around the stage, tremulous on his legs and nervous of his new master.

While the relationship between boy and horse grows and develops, Joey grows from a foal into a full-grown beast, operated from inside. And as he also grows into a fully formed character, the emotional bond between boy and horse drives, underpins and reflects Albert’s growth from boy to man.

Grand enough in scale to fill the Festival Theatre’s large space
 David Fleeshman and Steven Hillman. Photo © Ellie Kurttz

David Fleeshman and Steven Hillman. Photo © Ellie Kurttz

It is all brilliantly portrayed in a first half which declares its intentions in the opening scenes when a cast of 33 spread out across the stage. But which is intimate enough to start from very little – Bob Fox as the Song Man wandering across the empty stage or life-size swallow puppets swooping overhead to set its scene.

In short, this is both grand enough in scale to fill the Festival Theatre’s large space and resonate with every one of its 1800-odd audience members, yet intimate enough to engage with them on a deep emotional level.

With very little in the way of set, there is plenty of space to focus on the characters of the horses. Joey galloping across open countryside with Albert on his back, Joey’s battle with fellow war horse, Topthorn, to work out who is top are moments when the performers seem fit to burst out of the stage.

And they are moments when the action on stage can be caught in far more detail than any live film – the puppeteers can slow it down, distort time and create real character for their puppets in a manner that it would be hard to do in a different setting.

As the action moves inevitably to war in the trenches in France, boy and horse are separated, so the play follows their different passages through the same conflict in different, interlocking strands.

In doing so, Nick Stafford’s adaptation cuts the dialogue to a minimum, allowing the action to carry the story forward. And Joey become much more of a unwitting participant and an innocent. You can empathise with him and his plight in a way that you could not with a human character, who would come complete with all their baggage and frailties.

War Horse might not be Morpurgo’s greatest antiwar novel – Private Peaceful has deeper resonances. But as as play, War Horse manages to touch an instinctive emotional reflex against the wanton destruction of life. And by presenting that life in the body of a noble and utterly innocent animal, is all the more powerful.

Running time 2 hrs 40 mins.
Run ends Saturday 15 February 2014
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinees Thurs and Sat 2 pm
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Tickets from
The whole run is officially sold out. However some tickets do become available on a daily basis and are notified through the Festival Theatre’s facebook page:

War Horse on Tour:

22 January-15 February 2014 Edinburgh
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
19 February – 15 March 2014 Southampton
Mayflower Theatre
02380 711811 Book online
26 March – 26 April 214 Dublin
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
0818 719 377 Book online
30 April – 17 May 2014 Sunderland
Sunderland Empire Theatre
0844 871 3022 Book online
26 May – 14 June 2014 Bradford
Bradford Alhambra
01274 432 000 Book online
18 June – 19 July 2014 Cardiff
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464 Book online
23 July – 20 September 2014 Salford
The Lowry
08432 086000 Book online
24 Sept – 11 Oct 2014 Stoke-on-Trent
The Regent Theatre
0844 871 7649 Book online


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. This week: 16 – 22 March 2018 : All Edinburgh | Apr 15 2018
  1. Richard Hanlon says:

    Did you know that Finn Hanlon who plays Capt Nicholls in this production of Warhorse also played Private Peacefull one man production. He is also a Devon lad.