Tag Archives: War Horse

It’s a puppet!

WAR HORSE Press Launch

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th January, 2013


I saw the West End production of this marvellous show not long back and today I had the chance to get up close but not personal with the star of the piece, Joey the titular war horse.

It was a strange moment.  There I was, in the Hippodrome’s bar, sitting among journalists and bloggers and what-have-you.  We had been welcomed by Stuart Griffiths, the Hippodrome’s chief executive, and we had seen a stirring video, a trailer for the touring show.  We were being addressed by Toby Olié, associate puppetry director, when in came Joey, trotting happily to meet us.

Joey is a puppet.  There is no denying it.  You can see the puppeteers.  You can see the cane and aluminium framework he is made of.  But he is life-sized.  He moves and behaves like a real horse.  He breathes!  In fact he does everything but blink and poo on the carpet.  It is astonishing to behold.  The artistry of the puppeteers makes him life-like and naturalistic.  Given that the show is built around a puppet as its central character, something very special is required, if the audience is to have an emotional investment in the story.  This isn’t Punch & Judy, Sooty and Sweep, or even The Muppet Show.

Toby explained how Joey was constructed by South African outfit, Handspring Puppet Company, and how the three puppeteers share physical and emotional aspects of Joey’s performance.  One operates the head, the second the heart, and the third the hind.  It turns out you can be a professional horse’s ass without being a member of the cabinet.

We followed Joey outside for a photo-opportunity.  Passersby marvelled at him as he – well, I won’t say posed.  There is nothing anthropomorphic about Joey.  He behaves as an equine should.

Having seen the show, it was a treat to get to see the puppet up close and to learn about what goes into his operation.  Not only is the form of the show remarkable, the content is also powerful stuff.   There is a reason why it’s now in its sixth year.

It is encouraging to see shows of this magnitude touring the country, and indeed other countries.  You don’t have to go down to London to see everything.

War Horse comes to Birmingham in October.  You can check out where else it’s playing here.  I can’t wait to see it again.  It delivers an experience that Spielberg’s film version doesn’t quite manage to pull off.


Horse de combat

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.