Wednesday, July 22, 2009

War Horse

Two sad things about this show:
1. It was my last in London.
2. I found myself way too emotionally involved with puppets.

But perhaps the fact that I was completely emotionally involved was not so much a sign of sadness, but of a job well done by the creative people at the National Theatre. War Horse is the story of a young farm boy whose father sells his beloved horse, Joey, to the British Army to fight in the front lines of World War I. A live stage story that revolves around a horse presents a particular kind of problem for a design team, but the puppetry that takes place in this production is at once artistic (clearly, the horse is made of bamboo and there are men inside controlling it), and also ridiculously realistic (the movements are exactly that of a live horse, and the dimensions are big enough that it allows the horse to be actually ridden many times in the show).

Taken from a children's novel, this story (as many children's stories do) takes unspeakable acts of human cruelty, war, and death, and makes them palpable for young people to experience these things cathartically through a beloved animal. The relationship between the young boy and Joey the horse has the potential to be as heart-breaking and tear-rendering as classics like Old Yeller and every Disney movie that ever made you cry, but tragically the young man playing the boy made a very unfortunate choice vocally: his attempt at a Devonshire accent left me with the impression that somewhere along the story line we would be informed of some sort of impediment, but I was told at the interval that this was not the way the original actor had played the part and was in no way informed by the script. I'm not sure how the director let this go unchecked, but it is certainly the production's loss.

Aside from the amazing puppets, other aspects in this show were more subtly but no less impressively creative. Designer Rae Smith's sketches projected on a panel above the stage allowed for beautiful, simplistic artwork that also informed the audience and made it possible to jump from location to location, from farm to battlefront. Also, the original music by Adrian Sutton and John Tams was haunting and beautiful, and the production sometimes seemed to slip into a musical, but the solo or group singing blended nicely into the narrative and added layers of the feeling of the period.

If the part of the boy was to be recast, I would recommend this show instantly to anyone in London. The music, art, and puppetry are so far and above the expectation for children's theater that even non-theater goers could appreciate enjoy it.

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