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Most of you probably don’t know this, but I’m a huge theatre fan. Acting and performing have always been hobbies of mine, and although I love sitting down in front of the TV to watch a good film or an episode of my favourite show, sometimes nothing beats the spectacle of a live performance. Last month on Saturday 14th February I was lucky enough to go and see the matinee performance of War Horse by The Royal National Theatre. I had a great view from the Grand Circle and I loved every minute of it!

war horse bristol hippodrome

The Sound:

It’s true that most of the publicity surrounding the play has centred on the puppets, but there’s so much more to the show than that! I particularly liked the use of traditional folk music – Bob Fox’s vocals provided a soundtrack to the show that reflected the tone of each scene, shifting effortlessly from uplifting to haunting wherever the plot demanded it. The sound effects too were beneficial in creating an atmosphere of danger and violence in the trenches and all in all I thought that this aspect of the show was a real highlight.

The Look:

Visually, this show was stunning. Of course, the focus of the show is the puppets so the scenery is fairly minimal in most places, but you can’t deny that the scenic design is very creatively done. At intervals throughout the production drawings by Rae Smith were projected onto a 26 metre streak of torn paper suspended above the stage to act as a backdrop, which could easily become a landscape, horizon, battlefield or cloud, thus allowing for scene changes that didn’t require the shifting of set. One particularly memorable piece of art was the field of poppies that bled into a wash of blood at the closing moments of one of the early battle scenes.

No review of War Horse would be complete without mentioning the truly magnificent puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company. The craftsmanship of Joey and the other horses in the show is suitably impressive: a steel and leather framework with translucent fabric skin and intricate inner workings that allow the puppeteers to perfectly capture the mannerisms of a real horse. Even Joey as a foal, cantering clumsily across the stage and looking like Bambi on ice, is a delight; as is the cheeky wheeled goose that nearly steals the show. Just mere minutes into the performance and you cease to see the puppeteers. You essentially forget that the horses are being manipulated by the cast because their presence starts to feel natural. It is, quite simply, a piece of theatre magic.
No exaggeration, it really is that awesome!

The Acting:

The production was in fact holding its penultimate show at the Hippodrome when I went to see it, but you never would have known it by the acting. Everybody was terrific! It is a testament to the skill of the puppeteers and the cast acting alongside the ‘horses’ that the audience is able to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the performance. We find ourselves rooting for those animals, sharing in their triumphs when they succeed and feeling their pain when they suffer. Lee Armstrong played Albert Narracott exceedingly well, convincing the audience of his determination to find Joey but also of his growing belief that his search may be in vain. Albert’s character certainly matures over the course of the play and witnessing first-hand the futility of war definitely has a role to play in that, and it takes a talented actor to pull that off successfully. The Geordie soldier (played by Gavin Swift) who rescues Joey near the end of the play was great fun and provided some light relief amidst the tension of the show’s climax.

I could go on and on – everyone was so superb – but I don’t want to make this review thousands of words long!

The Verdict:

One of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time: 4/5 stars. You can’t help but be moved by the story, which so beautifully captures both the horror and the camaraderie of war. It seems like a pretty faithful adaptation too, which is great. If you ever have the chance to see it I would absolutely recommend that you do because it is fantastic!