New London Theatre, Saturday 1st December, 2012
It’s been running for years and has since been adapted into a Spielberg film but at long last I got around to seeing it on stage. Adapted by Nick Stafford (no relation), Michael Murpurgo’s novel is given a unique theatrical treatment that is so powerful, so affecting and so effective, it has to been seen live and shared with an audience.
There is no narrator. This production shows us events rather than telling us about them. Settings are simple: actors stand around holding wooden railings to suggest pens and enclosures. Sketches and animations are projected onto a huge tear, a wound, across the black backdrop. Doors are wheeled on and off to show interiors and exteriors. The focus is on the performers, the actors and puppeteers who bring the story to life. At the centre of it is Joey, the titular horse, a life-sized puppet that takes three men to work it. No attempt is made to conceal the operators from the audience and the puppet is stylised in such a way that we see its workings but such is the skill of the puppeteers, we see it as a living, breathing animal. It is a breath-taking demonstration of the power of theatre to work its magic in the mind of the beholder. Handspring Puppet Company work miracles.
Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris also use freeze-frames and slow motion to enhance the action, whether it’s Joey trying to plough a field or a cavalry charge. It’s an astonishingly inventive presentation, underpinned by a soundtrack of folk singing and music that is Stravinskyesque in its staccato dissonance. You cannot help but be totally immersed.
Luke Jerdy is young Albert the boy who raises Joey from a pony and who searches for him across war-torn France. His experiences make a man of him – this is not just an animal tale but a coming-of-age story set in one of the most horrific periods in human history.
I particularly liked Rachel Sanders and Steve Nicholson as Albert’s warring parents but really the entire company is first rate, doubling roles and keeping the action flowing through all its moments of contrast.
The drama is leavened with humour: a sarcastic sergeant major, for example, and a wonderful goose puppet with legs on a wheel. There are fantastic set pieces – a tank rumbles across the stage, Joey has a fight with another magnificent horse puppet, soldiers are struck down as they go over the top… It’s a sensory assault but above all an emotional journey. By the interval I was a wreck – at the end, I could hear a party of women behind me sobbing their eyes out -I didn’t turn around to see; I was too busy drying my face.
This magical, moving, devatasting and uplifting show is touring next year – I can’t wait to get back in the saddle.