How often does a theatre audience fall head over heels in love with a puppet? Well, that’s what happened, it seemed, on Wednesday, at the first night performance of War Horse at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Following eight record-breaking years in London’s West End and having played to over seven million people in 11 countries around the world, the National Theatre’s acclaimed play is now touring the UK as part of its 10th Anniversary Tour.
Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse centres around Joey, one of the million horses that were sent to France between 1914 and 1918 to take part in the First World War.
In writing the novel, Michael Morpurgo said he wanted to tell the story of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of a horse.
Joey, the beloved horse of Devon farm boy Albert Narracott, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.
He’s soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in No Man’s Land.
Back in Devon, young Albert cannot forget Joey. Though not yet old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find Joey and bring him home.
The astonishing thing in this play is that Joey and the other horses are played by puppets – although the word really doesn’t do justice to the massive and imposing presence of these creatures, each of them manned by three people.
There’s no attempt to hide the puppeteers, who are clearly visible as they work to bring the huge equine structure to life – and that’s where the magic happens.
Despite being able to see the performers manipulating the ears, the neck, the legs and even causing Joey to pant, very quickly you begin to see Joey as a living, breathing being, expressing a range of emotions.
So much so that, at curtain call, by far the biggest cheer and standing ovation from a hugely appreciative first night audience was for Team Joey.
And deservedly so, since the amazingly lifelike horse is one of the memories that has stayed with me most strongly from this production.
The other is the beautifully haunting folk songs that accompany the show, performed live on stage.
There were certainly faults in the production, which hopefully will be ironed out as the tour progresses. The acting in the first half left something to be desired, with stilted dialogue and little apparent rapport between the characters.
Accents were another weak point. If we hadn’t been told we were in Devon in the first act, I’d never have known – the accents were, literally, all over the place. Not to mention some impenetrable, and sometimes downright embarrassing, French and German accents later on.
But if the proof of the show is in the audience reaction, the first night audience was clearly delighted, giving the performers a hearty standing ovation. So hopefully this show will go on to delight many more people in MK and beyond throughout its 10th anniversary tour.
War Horse is at MK Theatre until October 6.
Box office 0844 871 7677 or www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes