Writer: Nick Stafford
Cast: Colin Connor, William Ilkley, Jo Castleton, Danny Hendrix & Ben Cutler
Review Date: July 31 2019
Performances: July 31 2019-August 17 2019, 7.30pm incl. 2.30pm matinees
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool
Age Rating: 10+
War Horse has returned to Liverpool’s Empire Theatre, following a very successful UK tour earlier this decade that saw it come to Empire Liverpool in 2017, which came on the heels of incredible success on the West End for many years following its 2007 launch at the Olivier Theatre. Though some of the cast members have changed, the story and show have not, and given how compelling it was during its previous run at Liverpool Empire, it’s no surprise that this was another highly-engaging, emotional and ultimately heart-warming performance to witness.
Ted Narracott (Colin Connor) is the local drunk who, when under the influence of alcohol, makes some questionable purchases. In this case, he buys a young horse at an auction, and though his wife Rose (Jo Castleton) has misgivings due to Ted’s regularly reckless spending, their son Albert (Danny Hendrix) immediately takes to the horse, named Joey, and promises to look after him. Albert helps to train Joey to the point where he becomes quite the thoroughbred, so much so that the horse, once deemed a ridiculous buy to the point of being a nuisance, becomes part of the family, and essentially Albert’s closest friend.
However, when World War One breaks out, Ted (who rarely makes decisions based on anything but his own instincts) sells Joey to the Army for 100 shillings, which greatly upsets Albert. A young Army officer named Lieutenant James Nicholls (Ben Cutler) promises to look after Joey, but when the family receives word that he has been killed in action, Arthur becomes deeply concerned about Joey, in the midst of his continued anger over his father selling the horse. So much so, in fact, that Arthur sets out to try and find his beloved horse, thus putting himself in great danger. From there, the story becomes a reflection of the War conflict with pain-staking detail, all through the eyes of a horse whose gifts make him both an asset and a target, and through the eyes of a young boy whose only desire is to bring his adored pet home.
Joey the horse (which is seen both in a life-sized, adult form and a younger, smaller size) is brought to the stage in the form of a multi-part puppet, handled by talented crew members who know exactly when and how to move, even as simple as the turning of an eye or the slight lift of a heel. The puppeteers and their management of the horse as a whole are magnificent; the mannerisms, movements and even noises of the horse are so true that it creates empathy from the audience. But while the crowd are wowed by how realistic Joey appears, considering that he is a puppet as opposed to an actual animal, after a while (which is a very good thing) you start to forget that the handlers are even there, focusing solely on the horse itself. Because Joey is so lifelike and due to the heavy nature of the story, your reactions come from the heart, as if it was an actual horse going through the struggle that plays out on stage.
Elsewhere, the cast themselves play their roles to a high standard, with Danny Hendrix (himself standing in on this particular evening) shining the brightest as the sympathetic, well-intentioned Albert. The set changes are quick, with simple effects that are both clever and imaginative, with a lot of people suddenly appearing out of the dark, and the lighting is kept simple and works very well to suit particular scenes. And of course, there is the powerful narrative itself: although we do get occasional spots of comedy (such as the appearance of a smaller goose puppet which acts, well, as a goose would be expected to act in amusing fashion), for the most part there is a serious tone, and at its strongest, the scenes involving Albert and Joey bring many in attendance to tears, in part because we have heard so much about how much of a toll World War One took on those involved, meaning that a show like this really brings home just what those young men went through.
Although we have seen this show before, it was a treat to sample it for a second time, and War Horse is a production that you will keep recommending and rewatching over and over again. You should definitely see it if you haven’t before, and it may also prove useful to teenagers who will be studying WW1 in their next semester in order to understand just what life was really like during this brutal conflict. Amongst the many theatre productions that tour the UK, only a small number can truly be classed as must-see, and War Horse is one of those shows.
Target Audience: Adults Aged 35-60
Content: 2/5 – Moderate Violence
Overall Rating: 9.5/10 – Classic
War Horse runs at the Empire Theatre until Saturday August 17. To buy tickets, click here or call 0844 871 3017.