Written By: Mark Armstrong
Date: November 15 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre, Liverpool, England
With the Remembrance Day services having taken place last weekend, and with next year marking 100 years since the end of World War One, it seems like a fitting time for War Horse to come to the Liverpool Empire. Since the show’s inception, War Horse (a stage adaptation of the 1982 book, with the West End incarnation inspiring the movie, released in 2011) has gained a reputation for being one of the most compelling and emotional stage shows ever performed, and so there was a great deal of anticipation for its current run in Liverpool.
Fortunately, I can confirm that the show, which is based on a true story, is superb. Of course, it helps to have either seen the film or read the book, or at least to have some knowledge about the atrocities of the First World War to provide context. But even those approaching this show cold will appreciate the touching story, the incredible performances and the first-class production values which all come together to deliver a fantastic theatre experience.
The show begins with the auction for a young foal in Devon, where Ted Narracott (Gwilym Lloyd), a local drunk who has the reputation of a coward for refusing to battle in previous conflicts, outbids his much richer and higher-class brother Arthur (William Ilkley) to buy the horse for 39 guineas, simply out of spite. Unexpectedly, his bid (the last of many) is not matched and he has to keep the horse, much to the chagrin of his wife Rose (Jo Castleton). However, Albert (Thomas Dennis), their son, offers to look after the horse and train it for an eventual sale.
In the meantime, Albert develops a strong bond with the horse, who he has named Joey. As we see the progression of time, Joey evolves into a strong, fast and likeable horse, though challenges come on occasion. During one of his drunken moments, Ted whips the horse, and Joey’s reaction (kicking back at Ted) is a sign of things to come later on. In addition, in another foolish bet, Ted agrees to sell Joey to Arthur in the event that the horse cannot plough within a week, with the incentive that Ted is paid his 39 guineas back in full by Arthur if Joey succeeds. After intense training by Arthur, Joey ultimately manages to plough on the day, and so Ted is rewarded in kind (though Rose immediately takes control of the money for the family mortgage).
Just as they are celebrating, though, news of the outbreak of World War One is confirmed. Arthur pays little attention at first, until Ted decides to sell Joey for £100 (a huge amount in 1914) to the British Army, who promise to look after the horse. But Arthur is shocked and saddened, and unsuccessfully attempts to sign up for the Army to stick by Joey, as he is under age (16 at that point). A few months of the War pass by, and at Christmas 1914, Ted and Rose purchase a bike for Arthur as a way of compensating for Joey’s absence. But when news trickles through that the horse’s new handler, Lieutenant James Nicholls, has been killed in action, with sketches of the horse sent back to Arthur as a way of remembering James, Arthur cannot take anymore, and cycles away to enlist, much to the dismay of his family, in the hope of somehow finding Joey. Along the way, he discovers the true realities of life on the battlefield, while Joey’s own experience of War takes many twists and turns.
It’s a story that anybody who has had relatives within the Army, either in past Wars or in modern conflicts, can relate to, since we are shown excruciating moments of attacks, killings, captures and emotional breakdowns. Any animal lover will also relate to the story, since the bond between Arthur and Joey is very strong, and one can only imagine how they would feel if their prized possession was taken away from them under the proviso that it will be looked after, only for it to become clear that the truth is far different, albeit unintentional. The title of the show obviously hints at where the story is going, but even before the outbreak of war, the production is compelling; of course, it truly hits its stride once Joey and later Arthur become a part of the British Forces.
The performances are as good as you could possibly expect. Thomas Dennis as Arthur was the star of the show to me, going from a happy-go-lucky, almost dim-witted youngster to a quickly-maturing fighter who takes command at the most trying of times with the lives of his comrades at stake, as well as somebody whose love for the horse cannot be broken, regardless of the danger to his life. He is funny and likeable, but also strong and caring. His acting during the scenes which tug the hardest at one’s heartstrings is incredibly dramatic, and by the end of the show (which I won’t spoil here), many of the audience are in tears due to the sheer emotion, partly created by the performances of all involved, but especially Arthur.
Production-wise, in some ways things are kept simple. There are no true settings as such, with basic items like a doorframe providing the only true backdrop. It’s the visual effects which bring us into specific environments, with crew members holding up fences during the auction, laying out barbed wire on the battlefield, and as grim as it may read, the laying of fallen troops. We also get a screen shaped in the form of a slightly torn scroll, which takes us through the timelines, into particular locations, and generally adds to the old-fashioned, War-time feel. Occasional singing by Bob Fox provides further context, and based on what we are witnessing during many scenes in the second half, these almost-haunting renditions only add to the high emotional stakes.
But of course, everybody is coming to see Joey. The horse is a life-size puppet (and a very impressive one at that), whose every motions from a gallop to a turn of the head are controlled by several cast members, who even provide the grunts and neighs of the creature. It’s quite a sight to see the horse, but it’s perhaps even more incredible that we, the audience, treat the horse as if it is a real-like animal, wincing when the puppet is put in danger, and tearing up when Joey’s fate is put under threat. It was a wise move to not only have Joey represented by a huge puppet, but to also have its crew visible throughout the show; not unlike The Lion King, it adds rather than detracts when we are continuously seeing the sheer effort that the cast are putting in to give us the most authentic recreation of Joey that is possible. This method is also used for other creatures, such as flying crows and, most notably, a small goose, which provides a few moments of mirth simply by behaving in the manner of a regular, almost-annoying creature.
The only downside that I thought when coming away from the show concerned the Ted character. Gwilym Lloyd does a cracking job of playing him, but one adopts a very negative attitude to someone whose alcoholism and desire to outwit his brother leads to most of the show’s struggles, from the family taking ownership of Joey in the first place to the bet involving Joey ploughing to Joey and, consequently, Arthur becoming part of the war effort. Though the show attempts to bring to life the original book as closely as possible, a moment of clarity for Ted where he realised the true consequence of his actions would have been a positive addition, since Ted’s character remains a symbol of negativity throughout, and in the end, nothing changes our perception of him. I should also warn anyone with children that this is obviously a very emotional and occasionally startling show (the gun shots had the audience jumping on many occasions), so I would not recommend that young kids attend this production, given the heavy toll of what happens on stage.
For older children and especially for adults, though, War Horse is an exceptional production. It’s one of those shows that every theatre-goer should see, but also anyone with an interest in British history and in discovering the true impact of the battlefield on those who enlist. It’s easy to forget that many, many horses were involved in World War One, so it’s very cool to see an extended portrayal of what one horse and its owner went through during the conflict. Overall, War Horse is brilliant, and a show that I highly recommend that virtually everyone should see while it is being performed at Liverpool Empire over the next few weeks.
Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding