War Horse in Sunderland: see how Joey is brought to life on the Empire stage

Neigh way is that a puppet!

Thursday, 7th February 2019, 3:14 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 5:27 pm
War Horse Joey on stage at Sunderland Empire.

Show-stopping star Joey the horse galloped his way onto the Sunderland Empire stage as hit play War Horse returns to Wearside.

Following its North East debut at the Empire in 2014, the National Theatre’s award-winning production has returned to the venue for a three-week run as part of its 10th anniversary tour.

War Horse Joey on stage at Sunderland Empire.

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the show features incredibly-realistic life-size horse puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.

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Actor Scott Miller plays the central role of Albert, who forges a life-long friendship with Joey the horse amidst the terror and tragedy of WWI, and he says it’s easy to forget the equine-esque structures aren’t real.

“Handspring have done such an incredible job with the puppets,” he said. “They set the convention early in the play with the baby foal so when the big horses come in around 20 minutes into the play you forget all about the fact it’s a puppet.”

Joey is brought to life each night by a trio of puppeteers, Tom Stacy, Domonic Ramsden and Andrew Keay who control the head, heart and hind, to give him life-like equine movements, from the flick of his tail and twitch of his ears to laboured breathing and excited neighing.

A trio of puppeteers operate Joey

“When I’m acting with Joey it’s like I’m acting with a horse, not the puppeteers, and it has to be that way,” says Scott. “I had never actually ridden a horse before this play, but in the first week of rehearsals we went to a stables and spent time with horses getting used to their movements and grooming them. We act around the puppets as we would horses, so we never walk directly behind it as it’s likely to kick you.”

Prior to winning the role in the new tour, which opened in Glasgow last month, Scott had never seen the hit film, directed by Steven Spielberg, but says it’s helped him to bring his own interpretation to the piece.

“I haven’t seen the film but I had seen the play back in 2011 and winning the role is a dream job,” he said. “I only read the book after rehearsals but I think that’s helped me to bring my own interpretation to the role rather than thinking about how someone else has done it.

“It’s such an enjoyable play to be a part of and you get so much energy from the audience.”

War Horse Joey on stage at Sunderland Empire with Goose

Speaking about why the story strikes such a chord with people, he said: “Although it’s set in World War I, it’s not just about war. It’s about the friendship between a horse and a boy, their deep connection which is unbreakable. That connection with animals is something that really resonates with people.”

•War Horse is at Sunderland Empire until February 23. Tickets available in person at the Box Office on High Street West, from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland

•Read our review of why War Horse is bringing audiences to their feet at Sunderland Empire here.

The puppets are created by Handspring Puppet Company
War Horse Joey on stage at Sunderland Empire with Goose