REVIEW: What Sunderland can expect from War Horse

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Puppetry in a First World War setting with a non-speaking horse as a main character – I wasn’t sure what to expect from War Horse.

These were no ordinary puppets though – these were award-winning puppets like no other I’ve seen.

 Whose fluidity and ability to convey emotion breathed new life into Michael Morpurgo’s celebrated 1982 novel.

I have to admit, I’ve never read the original book, or seen the Steven Spielberg film it spawned, but it didn’t take me long to be swept up in this story of one teenager’s bond with his horse that could not be broken.

It’s a tale that could easily be dismissed as a children’s story about a boy and his pet, but friendship, courage, loyalty and hope are the over-riding themes that tug on your heartstrings as the audience is transported back to early 20th century England, on the cusp of war.

Early scenes as Albert, played in the West End’s New London Theatre by Sion Daniel Young, forges a friendship with young and flighty foal Joey are an impressive scene-setter for the play.

Joey as a young horse has bags of character, but it was when the adult thoroughbred galloped onto stage under the guidance of a skilled team of puppeteers which really drew gasps of amazement. Despite the huge puppet structures conveying the strength and nobility of a horse, its movements are graceful and authentically equine – at times I even forgot there were people manipulating these mighty beasts.

The freedom of the first few scenes stand in stark contrast to Joey’s uncertain future after he is sold to the cavalry.

Joey finds himself in the blood-soaked battlefields of France and it’s up to the piece’s human hero, Albert, to find him and bring him home.

Clever craftmanship and emotion-fuelled acting combine in the second half to convey the horrors of the Great War.

On their quest to find each other, Joey and Albert encounter a host of well-drawn characters, some who thrive and some who crumble, under the pressures of war.

Unlike some novels of this ilk, War Horse touches upon both sides of the war when Joey is captured by the Germans, which only serves to strengthen the story and its message about the waste of human life and futility of war.

Zoe Thorne as little French girl, Emilie, put in a particularly poignant performance and her desperate cries of “Joey!” as he is taken from her summoned the entire audience’s attention.

It’s an emotional tour-de-force of a play with a fitting dénouement as Joey becomes trapped in barbed wire in the eerie silence of No Man’s Land. In a brief moment of peace and unity, an English and German soldier work together to free Joey.

He, of course, can’t thank them himself. But the audience breathed a sigh of relief as this, the most realistic of fake horses, becomes a step closer to being reunited with his doting 
master.

•Katy travelled to London Kings Cross direct from Sunderland Central with Grand Central. There are five direct services a day. For more information visit www.grandcentralrail.com.

•War Horse will make its North East debut at Sunderland Empire from April 30 to May 17, 2014. Tickets priced £15 to £45 can be purchased in person from the Box Office on High Street West, Sunderland, the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 and online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.