As we approach the Centenary of Armistice Day next month, projects and productions across the length and breadth of the Midlands (and, indeed, the Nation) are revisiting the trials, truths and terrors of the First World War in honour. It’s probably fair to say that few, however, will resonate on quite so wide and impacting a scale as the current anniversary tour of War Horse, which takes its place at the Birmingham Hippodrome for a month-long tenure this week.

A show that has lost precisely none of its Earth-shattering impact and clout, Horse remains as moving (and genuinely sob-inducing!) a story as it does a remarkably audacious and sensory piece of theatre making. Spanning the eve of the First World War right through to that historic moment when the bells rang out on November 11th 1918, it follows the story of young farmhand Albert Narracott (Thomas Dennis), who forms a bond with ‘Joey’, a young foal acquired from a drunken bet by his irresponsible, alcoholic father Ted (Gwilym Lloyd).

What follows is a wrenching, almost episodic endurance through the battles, brutality and barbed wires of the First World War, as Albert and Joey are each separately pulled through the devastating conflict, with Albert and the audience both desperately yearning for a reunion at the other side. 

The quaint, communal hamlet of the show’s opening gives way to the cold metal and smoke of the Calais landing, the suffocating bleakness and blades of the Somme, and the terrifying, ill-judged clash of mounted versus machine guns. And whilst War Horse’s stellar audio-visual design renders the visceral nature of the conflict suitably horrific, for all of the sombre beats, tragic developments (characters are dispatched with the stark reality of war that will make even some Game of Thrones viewers wince) and devastating impact that makes it as effective a reminder of the period as practically any documentary or film on the subject, Horse is littered with humanity and levity throughout.

Be it a no-nonsense, wise-cracking army official who decidedly ‘isn’t a soldier… I work for a living!’, an endearing and humorous Brummie best friend exchanging jibes in the trenches about Albert and his equine ‘love’, a young French girl befriending a jaded, kindly German deserter, or even just a scene-stealing goose pecking at the heels of ne’er-do-wells, War Horse’s heart is not just confined to its powerful central relationship between Albert and Joey. It makes for a show that packs a hefty emotional punch, taking its audience on an exceptionally human and bravely non-prescriptive (outside of Jack Lord’s suitably boo-hissable German weapons overseer) journey over the course of its almost 3-hour run time.

This is all of course beautifully complemented by what is still one of the most visceral and dazzling displays of craft and storytelling on the stage. You won’t soon forget just how noisy, bombastic and discombobulating a recreation of war Paule Constable’s sound and Christopher Shutt’s lighting depict on stage. Blinding beams flood out into the audience, and every round of gunfire is a deafening as it ought be. 59 productions’ beautiful animations and projections remain the perfect scene-setters to the more minimalist (yet no less effective) sets and staging, whilst the occasional folk song accompaniment from Bob Fox’s songman plucks delicately on the heartstrings. 

Throughout it all, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’ assured direction prove steady hands through all the story and spectacle, heartache and humour.

They draw out some stunning performances, too. Whilst it seems almost the de facto response for critics to laud all the credit on the admittedly-stunning puppetry, War Horse nevertheless hinges just as much on the humanity brought to stage by its human actors. Thomas Dennis, as Albert, carries the earnestness and hope of the show on his shoulders, putting in a searing, emotional tour-de-force as he passes through time from one trial or horror to the next, all the while still carrying a beacon of optimism that he will see Joey once again. Elsewhere, Peter Becker is excellent as the conflicted Friedrich, his character carrying much of the Second Act with his rounded, sympathetic turn, whilst Jo Castleton gives great spirit, grit and authenticity as Albert’s feisty yet caring mother Rose.

Still, there’s no denying that it will be Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler’s puppetry that most will remember long after the curtain falls. There’s little praise to heap here that hasn’t already been heaped many times over, but it bears repeating - the mastery and nuance with which illusion  and performance give way to character is still as stunning as ever. Utterly believable in movement and presence, the designers and remarkable puppeteers of not just Joey, but indeed his fellow War horse Topthorn, and the aforementioned scene-plucking Goose (ably puppeteered by Billy Irving), are undoubtedly the stars of the show.

11 years on from its debut, War Horse is as powerful, majestic and unmissable a theatre experience as ever. Few shows hit you with as much heart, horror, tears and terror in so dazzling and audacious a fashion as you find here. It’s not only one of the National Theatre’s most brilliant and enduring achievements, but also of the Nation’s most seminal, heart-wrenching and powerful pieces of theatre, period.


Runs 10th Oct - 3rd November

Tickets: 0844 338 5000

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