REVIEW: War Horse (The Civic)

Review by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth

Horseplay at its Finest

The National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse is probably one of the most spectacular productions to be staged at The Civic to date.

War Horse is mesmerising – bringing out the child in everyone as we watch the horses trot, canter and gallop in unison, without missing a beat. The life-sized puppet horses are truly a design marvel and we can’t help but gape with admiration at the innovative spectacle that overwhelms our senses.

As expected the titular horse aka Joey is the star, both as protagonist as well as the central visual focus during a majority of the show.

Toby Sedgwick’s stunning horse choreography is expertly complemented by South African Handspring Puppet Company’s impeccable design and superb puppetry. A personal favourite is almost being showered by the spluttering horses as the puppeteers breath, neigh and snort while charging across the stage.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, War Horse is set at the outbreak of World War One. Joey – young Albert’s beloved horse – is sold to the cavalry and shipped from England to France.  He is soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man’s land.  But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a perilous mission to find him and bring him home.

The 27-strong cast deliver believable and tender performances throughout. Often battle scenes on stage can be less than believable in terms of scale, but the choreography, lighting and sound FX combine flawlessly to convince us of the terror and fear of human conflict.

As a juxtaposition to the harrowing portayals of war, the simplicity of the “Songperson” (Ben Murray) as the musical narrator – punctuating the production – works a treat. Murray’s crystal clear voice is both melodious and arresting providing relief to the somewhat dramatically ridden segments.

We observed many in the audience who were visibly moved to tears during the show. In today’s world, desensitised to violence, it is interesting to see people respond as much, if not more, to needless suffering of animals than that of human soldiers at war.

Designer Rae Smith’s set alongside Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer’s animation and projection on the backdrop are efficiently utilised allowing the visuals in the foreground to be economical and effective. A very clever device particularly for a travelling show — to minimise undue set changes to fluidly depict villages, action sequences and establish multi decade timeframes. The use of birds as metaphor for freedom soaring above the highly industrialised war machines below is poignant while providing some welcome comic relief and lighter moments.

With the grave subject matter of WWI as the backdrop of most of the production, we find ourselves enveloped by the Christopher Shutt’s realistic war soundscape which is both piercing and riveting. And the gunshots, coupled with smell of gunpowder, constantly keeps us on the edge of our seats. This is heightened by the action that at points puts some of the audience in the thick of the action.

With all these bells and whistles we must admit that the storyline is a tad flimsy at parts. And everything wrapping up in a neat little package makes it akin to a Disney-like ending, rather than one that could have matched the weight and gravitas of the thought-provoking storyline. Nonetheless, the production values of this world-class show are beyond reproach and are definitely worth experiencing.

The well-deserved standing ovation on opening night is a testimant to the emotional depth this show elicits in its audience. There’s no doubt that War Horse will appeal to all ages and cultures because of its universal themes and spellbinding effects. Don’t hesitate – go see it!

War Horse plays The Civic until 14 July. 

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