From children's novel to theatrical adaptation and cinematic masterpiece, War Horse has proved its success again and again. This stage tour, returning to Australia after seven years, is no different. Its drawcard is life-sized puppets that whinny, gallop and twitch like living, breathing horses and they dominate the stage from the first scene with the birth of the foal, to the final scene when the curtains close on Albert Narracott and Joey.
As the name suggests, War Horse is about a war and a horse, but it's also so much more than that. At its heart is the story of friendship between young Albert and the horse his father, Ted, purchases at an auction. Albert names the foal Joey and rears and trains him, and a close relationship develops. However, when the war breaks out, Ted sells Joey to the army. Furious and heartbroken, Albert enlists in order to be reunited with Joey.
The play then follows two storylines, that of Joey's fortunes in the war and Albert's in the infantry as he makes his way to the frontline. The horror and senselessness of warfare are highlighted to poignant effect in the death toll – both human and equine – that keeps rising as the play progresses. But there are moments of levity too, in the friendships Albert develops with his fellow soldiers and particularly in the scenes with the incredible and realistic farm goose.
The production feels truly epic, with seamless puppeteers, integrated into the very bodies of the horses, and spectacular lighting and projections that transport audiences to the World War One setting. Then there are the lilting, haunting tunes and the incredibly gifted actors who bring the story to life.
War Horse is outstanding in its execution. The artful interactions between man and horse are largely the reason that audiences can suspend belief and view the horses and animals as living, breathing creatures, while the choreography of every scene succeeds in eliciting an emotional response from those watching. It is beyond doubt one of the best theatrical productions to come to Australia this year.