War Horse (3 stars)

War Horse

credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Disappointingly lacklustre touring puppetry production

While War Horse has earned a reputation for its powerful puppetry – the titular horse is an impressive beast that easily dominates the stage throughout the production – this touring version combines weak ensemble performances and a baggy narrative structure that suck the energy from a story leaving it mired in sentimentality.

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse describes the love between a boy and his horse, Joey: when the horse is conscripted into the First World War, the boy follows: after a few rustic scenes establishing their relationship, the play follows the pair through the horrors of the trenches. Joey becomes a cavalry charger, is captured by the Germans and becomes a supply horse, dragging carts filled with the wounded and weapons behind the frontline. Yet the magical connection between man and beast manages to occlude the script's examination of the violence of war: while it questions the inhumanity, the cruelty to animals and even the advances in technology that are replacing horse power, there is little depth in the analysis, leaving these as token and obvious comments on WWI's brutality.

The narrative is an episodic melodrama, with music and the video project doing much of the heavy-lifting to evoke tension and excitement: the use of tableaux in key scenes, the swelling soundtrack and the dynamic lighting suggest a series of spectacular events, but the often leaden performances and desultory characterisation undermine the pace, exposing the productions reliance on the puppetry. There are scattered moments of visual brilliance – the moment when Joey appears as an adult horse, the murky conflicts of the trenches, even the final tableau when Joey and his boy are reunited – yet these are not enough to hold together a rambling story that demands an emotional suspension of belief.

Whether War Horse's reputation has simply encouraged other companies to use puppetry in similar ways, or the relentless touring of the production has simply exhausted the show's potential to impress, there is a lack of affective energy and the spectacle feels forced and predictable, lacking the emotive power or incisive commentary to exploit its melodramatic tropes.

Now touring.

War Horse

  • Directed by: Toby Sedgwick
  • Written by: Michael Morpurgo (book)

The National Theatre's staging of Michael Morpurgo's novel about a farm horse called Joey caught up in the horrors of WWI.