Review of War Horse as it brings audiences to their feet at Sunderland Empire

War Horse is in Sunderland for a three-week run
War Horse is in Sunderland for a three-week run
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Few productions have mastered the art of suspending disbelief quite like War Horse.

For just over two hours, it’s as though Joey is a real horse clip-clopping on the Empire stage, flicking his tail, twitching his ears and nuzzling his owner Albert.

On paper, a play featuring a horse as the main character shouldn’t work, but it’s testament to the skill of the Handspring Puppet Company and Nick Stafford’s adaptation, as well as the cast and crew, that we invest so thoroughly in this incredible piece of puppetry.

Anyone who’s read the much beloved Michael Morpurgo book, or seen the Steven Spielburg film it spawned, will be familiar with this tale of one man and his horse as they forge a life-long friendship against the backdrop of WWI. But there’s nothing quite like seeing War Horse in 3D.

As you would expect from a National Theatre production, this is a masterpiece in storytelling.

This was my fourth time seeing the play and this new 10th anniversary tour is no less fresh than it was a decade ago.

Scott Miller is new to the role of Albert Narracott, but he brings with him a great vitality as we watch the beautiful bond between man and beast take shape.

Early scenes are set in the sleepy Devon countryside where a sprightly Albert meets his match in an equally-spirited Joey, a bay thoroughbread with attitude.

The life-size puppet is manipulated by three puppeteers, two in his body operating the heart and hind, and one at his head, but such is the realism, their skill of aping equine movements and creating the deep neigh of a horse through a unison of sound, that you forget they are there. Never has being invisible been such a talent.

Darkness soon descends on the summer skies of Devon, however, when Joey is sold to the Cavalry for the war effort, much to the heartbreak of Albert who vows to be reunited with his steed.

The sets, designed by Rae Smith, seem simple but are, in fact, incredibly effective. A screen resembling a torn parchment spans the width of the stage, cleverly depicting the passage of time, from the arable landscape of Devon to the blood-soaked battlefields of The Somme.

We see a shift in Albert too as he transforms from an eager young farm lad to a soldier scarred by The Somme. On his search for Joey he forms new friendships and his camaraderie with fellow private David (played with infectious charm by Khalid Daley) bring moments of warmth and humour amidst the horrors of war.

These scenes of conflict are a tough, but important, watch and so well executed they have you ducking at the sound of gunfire and wincing as Joey’s leg is entangled in the barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters no sides are taken in this portrayal of war, as exemplified in the character of German captain Friedrich Muller (played with real warmth by Christopher Naylor) who we will to return home to his family as much as we do the allied troops.

Instead, the play focuses on the futility of war, its devastating affect on individuals and bonds that not even a bloody battlefield can break.

•War Horse is at Sunderland Empire until February 23.

•To learn the tricks of the trade in bringing Joey to life read our backstage feature here.