REVIEW: War Horse, Sunderland Empire

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EMACIATED, suffering, lying dying in the quagmire of a foreign field, it was a picture of a horse in a junior school textbook which, for me, first illuminated the horrors of the First World War.

Perhaps it was because I’d been shielded from the more horrific pictures of men suffering, perhaps it is because we’re a nation of animal-lovers, or perhaps it was because these creatures were the most innocent of all.

Whichever it is, as we mark 100 years of the First World War, it says something that the story of the conflict’s immense suffering and loss is most popularly told through the tale of a boy and his horse.

And it was, of course, the equine protagonist Joey which stole the show as it trotted out before a packed audience at the Sunderland Empire last night.

Bringing massively successful book and film to the stage was always going to stand or fall on the success of portraying the horse – a live animal is clearly impractical, a Rentaghost-style pantomime steed would never have cut the mustard.

It seems too dismissive to refer to this anatomically-perfect piece of engineering as a puppet.

Operated by three men, every ear twitch, tail flick and simulated breath brought wonderment to the audience.

At first I found it hard to completely suspend my disbelief with the three men required to operate the young Joey – a smaller puppet – stood in clear view.

But once the fully-grown mount trotted on to the stage, the operators were better-hidden and the show really began.

Several horses make an appearance in the production, along with various other artificial fauna, including puppet swifts and an amazing animatronic goose – which was worth the audience’s standing ovation alone.

There is even a puppet tank.

This all adds up to create an amazing visual spectacle, but the work of the Handspring Puppet Company is far more than that – their contraptions capture real emotion as well as lifelike movement.

I don’t envy the cast. It is an up-hill struggle to make an impression against these artificial animals, as well as an impressive set and strong lighting and sound effects – including a giant projection screen used to help convey the enormity and terror of the conflict in France.

They managed admirably, though, with the 20-or-so actors switching from portraying the bucolic charm and drama of village life in rural Devon to the dark horrors of the Somme, with outbursts of comic relief throughout.

The tremendous accomplishment of the lifelike Joey puppet perhaps detracts from our appreciation of the performance of Lee Armstrong, who plays his owner Albert Narracott.

We must remember Armstrong is interacting with metal and gauze, not a real horse – and also spare a thought for the two men inside, bearing his weight as well as that of the puppet.

Martin Wenner is also worth a mention here, playing German captain Friedrich Müller who looks after Joey when the animal is captured.

His love of Joey and the other horses mirrors that of Albert, though he is told by another officer that he is soft in the head and that horses are simply beasts put on Earth to serve men.

The horses in the production are not only used to convey the suffering, loss and desperation of the First World War, they are also a vehicle to show both sides in the conflict as human beings, equally capable of compassion and cruelty.

In a later scene reminiscent of the legendary Christmas truce, there is a cease fire where British and German soldiers go into the feared hell of No Man’s Land to rescue the wounded Joey from a tangle of barbed wire.

There are no goodies and baddies here, only human nature at its best and worst. And a horse.