Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo’s novel is brought to life in this effective adaptation by Simon Reade and Nottingham Playhouse. It’s the story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, and their nigh-on idyllic childhood in pre-war Devon. Throughout the course of one night of sentry duty in the trenches, Private Tommo Peaceful narrates his life story up to this moment, the action slickly transitioning into flashbacks with the wave of an army blanket and a lighting change. The story flows seamlessly and moves on a quite a lick, but there’s still plenty of time for us to engage with the characters and their tribulations.
War takes the brothers to France, where they encounter all the usual tropes of WWI drama: the trenches, the rats, the lice, the unreasonable officers, the futility, the waste of life… Everything except a war poet, in fact. The scenes here contrast sharply with the comparative rosiness of life at home, delivered with a sense of urgency: Tommo must get his story told before morning comes. We find out why in a devastating denouement.
As Tommo, Daniel Rainford is splendid, never leaving the stage. We see him grow up before our eyes, as he and Charlie fall for the same girl, disrespect the pompous lord of the manor, and generally form the fraternal bond that will see them through to the end. Tom Kanji makes a strong impression as the older brother, while Liyah Summers is sweet and appealing as their shared love object. Emma Manton is both tough and sympathetic as the mother, bringing up the boys on her own and striving to keep the roof over their heads. Robert Evans as the older brother with learning difficulties shows us the prejudices of the age, but surely the hardest working and most versatile member of the cast is John Dougall, appearing in the widest range of roles from the ill-fated father, to the vicar, the great aunt, and various military men.
It’s an engaging story, if a little cliched. Director Elle While keeps things flowing, with sudden changes of mood and location jarring us out of the present and into the past and back again. It’s a children’s story so we are spared the worst excesses of conditions, with the horrors of war only hinted at rather than depicted. What comes through very strongly is the injustice of the treatment of so-called ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors.
Matt Haskins’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound design enhance the storytelling, which is played out on Lucy Sierra’s remarkable set that conveys both homeland and war zone at the same time – thin branches curling in the air are also the barbed wire of the battlefield; mounds of sandbags suggest the rolling landscape…
This is a high-quality production reminding us of the huge waste of the First World War, and sadly, there are parallels with the world today, as Ukrainian men are recruited to defend their country against invaders, and once again thousands of lives are being lost on European soil.
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 24th November, 2018
This brand-new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is written by the New Vic’s genius-in-residence, Theresa Heskins, and is directed by Peter Leslie Wild. It bears all the hallmarks of a great New Vic Christmas show, with the Workshop and technical crew all flexing their creative muscles to translate fantastic worlds onto the stage. And so, Laura Willstead’s set has painted branches, like illustrations, and sprigs of greenery draped all around. Tree trunks made of cloth descend from above, like roots probing into soil, to create the Wild Woods… while Lis Evans’s Edwardian costumes give us the pre-WWI period while emphasising the anthropomorphism of Grahame’s characters; ears on hats and tails protruding from trouser seats are all that differentiate species.
With original music by Matt Baker, performed by the cast, the story unfolds, beginning with Alicia McKenzie’s inquisitive Mole setting off on adventure. She encounters Richard Keightley’s dapper Ratty and their voyage in his boat is positively lovely, with Daniella Beattie’s lighting and projections creating a captivating illusion. Emma Manton’s Badger, younger and more female than is traditional, is schoolma’am-ish and forthright, but it’s Matthew Burns’s long-suffering Horse who delights the most. Burns later appears as a cheerfully macabre Jailer, when Rob Witcomb’s ebullient Toad falls foul of the Law.
This Toad is sweet-natured despite his manic obsessions. Witcomb makes him more of an Ed Balls figure than a Boris Johnson, while Kieran Buckeridge’s villainous Fox is more exploitative and, yes, more than a bit scary. Even scarier is Sophia Hatfield’s strident Mrs Otter; you would not like to tangle with her.
The whole enterprise is played with exuberance by the talented ensemble. Their choral singing is enough to melt your heart. Peter Leslie Wild’s direction keeps things moving, and very much in the New Vic in-house style, with cast members holding up shelves, car wheels and so on, to keep the scenery flowing. The sequence involving the train is breath-takingly executed, a remarkable piece of physical theatre.
Heskins tweaks the ending a little to give us a timely nudge in these dark days of austerity and isolationism. Wealth is better shared, Toad demonstrates, better when it’s put to use creating opportunities for the marginalised. It’s subtly done, augmenting the heart-warming feelings the show has engendered from the start.
Cosy, charming and consistently amusing, this is a family show that makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the woodland creatures it portrays.
Alan Ayckbourn’s latest (yes, he’s still churning them out!) is darker than most of his output but nonetheless as funny as ever. It tells the story of the return to his home town, after 17 years in the armed forces, of local lad Murray (Richard Stacey) acclaimed as a hero for his part in saving a children’s hospital from rebel forces. With him is his sweet, young wife Madrababacascabuna (Terenia Edwards) whose struggles to learn English lead to many an amusing moment.
Trouble is, no one seems happy to have Murray back. It emerges he left town under something of a cloud, having deserted Alice (Elizabeth Boag) at the altar, a woman he stole from former best mate Brad (Stephen Billington). Alice is now Mayor and wields power enough to scupper Murray’s plans to reopen his family’s old hotel.
Murray is the least exaggerated of the characters: Stacey gives him an earnest, likeable manner bringing to mind the skills of Christopher Eccleston, while Terenia Edwards, in her professional debut, sparkles as his wife (I can’t be bothered to type that name out again), growing in confidence in tandem with her vocabulary. Russell Dixon is Alice’s husband and mayoral consort Derek, a gossipy old woman of a man fixated on model railways – a stock Ayckbourn type. Ayckbourn rarely gives us absolute, complete and utter shits (I can think of Paul in Absent Friends) but here with Brad is a villain of unadulterated nastiness. Billington is dashing and dapper enough to offset Brad’s inner ugliness; we enjoy detesting him. Suffering Brad’s emotional and verbal abuse is long-suffering wife Kara – Emma Manton utterly excellent at showing us the pain behind the brave face in an outstanding performance.
Ayckbourn packs a lot in and although Michael Holt’s set is a little cluttered, the three locations-in-one work well to keep the action zipping along. There are underlying themes of the difficulties faced by soldiers who leave the army, and the treatment of immigrants as less-than-human (Brad sees Murray’s wife as fair game in a bet with Derek) but the emphasis is on the personal dramas unfolding, as events of the past come to the fore and the present situation becomes untenable.
It’s as bitter and delicious as dark chocolate, performed by a flawless ensemble and, while not a masterpiece, proves that Ayckbourn is still at the height of his powers, unmatched in his presentation of contemporary human interactions.
Richard Stacey and Terenia Edwards (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)